30 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Jeff Waxman. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

It’s hard watching the first round, shoulder to shoulder with other sweating fans at wobbling tables that would sacrifice the first inch of your beer if you ever set it down. It’s hard watching your team bite it. I read The Dinner, and it might’ve even had a shot against any one of the other novels in the running. But not against By Night in Chile, one of the bookiest books in Bolaño’s sainted oeuvre. Even with officials like ours—as loathsome, venal, half-blind, and hateful as a Herman Koch antihero—Bolaño couldn’t fall. “The fix is in!” they’d shriek. And they’d be right. Didja hear about Marias? Damn.

So the better book won. And to read the play-by-play on Budapest/Dark Heart of the Night, Cameroon never really had a chance. What did Jeffrey Zuckerman say? It shocked and amazed him? I was pretty impressed, too. But as Brazil is about to learn, you can only get so far in a tournament like this one with cute jibes at the Hungarian language. And when you’re writing for this reader, you’re liable to get carded for any number of extremely subjective sins.

By Night in Chile has the air of a parable about it: an aged poet and critic (and priest) lies on his deathbed recounting a career that peaked during some of the darkest days of the Pinochet regime. You need to hear this plot again like you need a hole in the head—this is the second round after all. But I will emphasize that this isn’t, precisely, a political book or an apolitical book. It’s not a book about body count, even if there are a few bodies. It’s a book about the culture of books and the sometimes ambiguous place in which that culture exists. “And that’s the truth,” Bolaño writes.

We were bored. We read and we got bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers needed to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company. Apart from the inescapable fact that many of the old crowd had left the country for reasons more personal than political, the main difficulty was the curfew. Where could the artists and intellectuals meet if everywhere was shut after ten at night, for, as everyone knows, night is the most propitious time for getting together and enjoying a little unbuttoned conversation with one’s peers. Artists and writers. Strange times.

1-0, Chile. Like you had to ask. You were there. You saw it.

As the narrative of a ghostwriter, a man who requires the special cadences of life itself to write and, sometimes, to translate, Budapest is awash with sex and metatextual jokes, with winks and nudges. Buarque is a writer’s writer and his sentences range across the pitch—the page!—passing forward and backward, almost offsides as often as they advance. Buarque writes:

The writing flowed spontaneously, at a pace that was not mine, and it was on Teresa’s calf that I write my first words in the local tongue. At first she kind of liked it and was flattered when I told her I was writing a book on her. Later she took it into her head to get jealous, to refuse me her body, saying I only wanted her to write on . . .

1-1. Buarque knows what he’s doing.

But like I said, Bolaño’s prose here is powerful and written from the backfield—in retrospect, I mean. And from that position, it surges forward, sentence running into sentence, pushing, driving, probing. Paragraphs hardly break. Dialogue is a series of colons (sometimes) without columns. Chile is getting somewhere and they’re getting there fast:

And Farewell: Have you been to Italy? And I: Yes. And Farewell: Everything falls apart, time devours everything, beginning with Chileans. And I: Yes. And Farewell: Do you know the stories of other popes? And I: All of them. And Farewell: What about Hadrian II? And I: Pope from 867 to 872, there’s an interesting story about him, when King Lothair II came to Italy, the pope asked him if he had gone back to sleeping with Waladra . . .

Chile scores again. And again.

There’s a parody of soccer you’ll all remember from The Simpsons:

Buarque writes like that, almost, a passing game with unexpected thrusts and he can shuffle his chapters in just such a way that the reader nods along, saying, “Ah, yes, I see what you did there. You’re skipping from location to location almost by chapter”:

And again, that’s the truth: when reading a good novel, the reader can marvel at the elegance of individual sentences, at the slow building of plot, at the construction of character. When reading a great novel, there are no sentences that aren’t a part of the whole, there’s no plot and there’s no character to admire—there’s a book. A great novel is not a house of cards, it’s a pleasure palace made of motherfucking gold. And while we mortals can aspire to the delicate work of writing something clever and wonderful and cunning, we cannot cause golden fucking palaces to spring into being. Not like Bolaño can. Shit, I’m supposed to be making sports metaphors. Who’s good? Buarque is a world-class writer, a Suárez chomping at the shoulders of great players. Bolaño is fucking Pelé-Beckham-Ronaldinho. He’s the Galloping Ghost, His Airness, the Big Kahuna, the Sultan of Swat, and the Great One all rolled up.

What I’m trying to say is Chile over Brazil, 3-1. Buarque’s Budapest is a book to love. I feel as though it has been written for me, but By Night in Chile was written for the ages.

To quote the last line in Bolaño’s book: “And then the storm of shit begins.”

——

Jeff Waxman recently left Chicago—and 57th Street Books—to work at Other Press. He’s a funny guy.

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


11 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning, Judge Jeff and I were on the local morning news show to talk about the 2012 Best Translated Book Award finalists.

And even though it’s not even noon, I highly recommend using this as a drinking game . . . Every time Judge Jeff looks directly into the camera, do a shot. And do a double if he looks in there and smiles.

6 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With only one book left to cover, we’re reaching the end of the “25 Days of the BTBA” series, which means that the announcement of the finalists is right around the corner. Literally.

Next Tuesday, April 10th, fiction panelists Jeff Waxman will be here in Rochester for a special Reading the World Conversation Series event, during which he’ll reveal the BTBA finalists in poetry and fiction.

Before he unveils the shortlists (which will also be posted here as soon as he reads them off), we’ll talk about the evolution of the award, the role of the BTBA in general book culture landscape, how the panel came to make its decisions, and so on. Seeing that Jeff works at the University of Chicago Press and 57th St. Books, he has a unique perspective on literary awards and promoting international literature.

Following our talk and the unveiling of the finalists, we’ll read a few pages from a few of my favorite titles on the list. (We don’t have enough time to read from all of them—anyone want to camp out in the Welles-Brown room?—but we want to at least highlight a few of the books in a special way.)

(NOTE: Cover images on this were chosen randomly by Nate for design purposes only. Read nothing into this. And having the list in front of me, I can only reiterate—read nothing into this poster.)

Also, this means that over the three weeks building up to the celebration of the two winners—which will take place on Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books during the PEN World Voices Festival—we will be highlighting all of the poetry finalists and running short excerpts from the ten fiction finalists. Which means you have almost one more month of BTBA stuff to look forward to . . .

7 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

I didn’t notice this until just now, but Joshua Mostafa has set up a book club on LibraryThing to read a book a month from the BTBA Shortlist. He needs a few more members to get this rolling, so anyone who’s interested should head here and join up. It’s free, easy, will be great fun, etc. (And it’s possible that some of the publishers will do something special to help promote this . . . )

On a related BTBA note, here’s the display that Jeff Waxman set up at 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago:

If you’ve never been to the Seminary Co-op (57th, Newberry Library, and Seminary Co-op are all part of the same co-op), you’re missing out on one of the absolute best indie stores in the country. Really is the prototypical university/literary bookshop. Absolutely packed with great books that you’ll probably never see in another store (there is no fluff here), and has that indescribable bookstore allure. (Helps that it’s in a cave-like space within the seminary. So very cool.)

If you’re ever in Chicago, it’s definitely worth swinging by.

14 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Absinthe 14 arrived in yesterday’s mail, and is loaded with interesting authors and pieces, including:

  • An excerpt from Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, which was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and recently published by Archipelago books. (Actually using this in the “Translation & World Literature” class I’m teaching this spring.) Since there’s nothing about issue 14 on the “Absinthe website” quite yet, below is a description of the novel from Archipelago. And click here to hear the Reading the World Podcast episode featuring Bill Johnston.

Myśliwski’s grand epic in the rural tradition—a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive. Wise and impetuous, plain-spoken and compassionate Szymek, recalls his youth in their village, his time as a guerrilla soldier, as a wedding official, barber, policeman, lover, drinker, and caretaker for his invalid brother. Filled with interwoven stories and voices, by turns hilarious and moving, Szymek’s narrative exudes the profound wisdom of one who has suffered, yet who loves life to the very core.

  • An excerpt from Agnomia by Robert Gal, translated from the Slovakian by Michaela Freeman and Jim Freeman, and opening interestingly enough:

They select some man, sufficiently experiment with him and only then identify him as the object of the experiment. They slip him hidden meanings of his multisense expressions which, for them, are univocal. They let him deal with it for years. What they tie in a knot through definition in a moment, he is forced to spend years untying through conscientious interpretation. In the meantime, their definitions are petrified solid. His interpretations appear, as if they were made of butter and deliberately throw them on his head, so that they could laugh at these babbles.

  • A bit about Mateiu Caragiale’s The Rakes of the Old Court, which was published in 1929 and was recently voted “the Romanian novel of the twentieth century.” This bit from the intro by Paul Cernat makes it sound pretty interesting:

For those who wish to gain a closer knowledge of the peculiarities of the Balkan mindset, a reading of this text, which has the value of an emblem of national identity, is, I might say, obligatory. Of course, we are dealing with a “Balkanism” that has been filtered through the work of Huysmans and Edgar Allen Poe, captured in a hypnotic narrative whose density of meanings has led literary theorist Matei Calinescu to compare it with Borges’ El Aleph. It is an unusual narrative, whose effects are those of an addictive literary drug.

There’s also a piece by Thomas E. Kennedy called “A Visit to Hunger 120 Years Later,” and book reviews of The Other City by Mchal Ajvaz (reviewed by Jeff Waxman) and When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree by Jean-Pierre Rosnay (reviewed by John Taylor).

As mentioned above, the Absinthe site for issue 14 is still coming together, but you can order the issue by clicking here.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know I’ve written it before, and will do so again, but the Wolff Symposium is one of the absolute best annual translation-related gatherings. It’s held every June and is centered around the awarding of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, which is given to the best translation from German into English published in the previous year. All genres are eligible, but translators can only win once.

Anyway, the symposium took place a few weeks back and was absolutely amazing. Great panels, wonderful to see Ross Benjamin receive the award, very nice tribute to Breon Mitchell re: his new translation of The Tin Drum. (I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never read this, although every time I see Breon I swear that it’ll be the next book I pick up . . . And it will be! Soon. Soon . . .)

I was planning on writing up some notes and thoughts and whatever from the day of panels, but well, it’s been a busy time and besides, WBEZ was there to record the whole symposium. And although I can’t imagine many people listening to all of these podcasts, they’re a much better record of what was discussed than anything I could babble on about . . .

If you do decide to listen, you might want to do so in order—at least when it comes to the “Increased Interest in Foreign Fiction?” and “Cultivating Audiences” panels, otherwise my random 15-minute speech at the beginning of the latter panel will make next to no sense . . .

So:

First off is the tribute to Breon Mitchell that included an interview with NY Times journalist David Streitfeld.

(There was another panel with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Krishna Winston, Ross Benjamin, and Breon Mitchell, but I can’t find the podcast . . . Which sucks! This was a great conversation . . . Maybe I’m just missing something? If anyone knows where this is, please e-mail me.)

Then the panel with Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Daniel Slager of Milkweek, Jeremy Davies of Dalkey Archive Press on An Increased Interest in Foreign Literature?

And then the Cultivating Audiences – Particular Examples, Viable Models? panel that started with my rant and ended with all of us (Susan Harris of Words Without Borders, Susan Bernofsky, and Annie Janusch) talking about technology and reaching readers . . . while my phone buzzed with the dozen or so text messages I received during that panel . . .

Finally, we wrapped up with a contentious argument about Amazon.com discussion about Publishing Literary Translations and New Publishing Technologies. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Henry Carrigan of Northwestern University Press, and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op were on this panel, which was a great way to end the day, having moved from a grand appreciation of Breon and the craft of translation to the dirty details of the book business and how all the various segments always feel like their getting screwed. Speaking of screwing, this panel also had one of the funniest exchanges of the day:

Jeff: “Being a bookseller, it’s kind of an unrequited love affair with books where you know that you’re going to get screwed.”

Chad: “That’s not really an unrequited . . . It’s actually just a love affair.”

This then led to a series of sexually charged double entendres . . . Man, those end of the day panels—brilliant!

13 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

And here’s the beginning of his review:

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review.

13 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brain must be stuck.

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

A never ending dream, and always the same.

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

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

1 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [5]

Below is a special guest post from Jeff Waxman, bookseller at Seminary Co-op in Chicago (one of the five greatest indie bookstores in America) and managing editor of The Front Table. As someone who loves independent bookstores—and worked in them for years—I really want to see them survive, but Jeff’s post touches on some of the internet-related challenges that these stores face. And he doesn’t even get into the whole impact of eBooks on physical bookstores . . . Happy Monday!

Hello, everyone, and welcome to my anxiety. I am, you see, an independent bookseller, one of the many anxious denizens of the book world. And when reading Shelf Awareness and other trade news has become like reading obituaries, why shouldn’t I be anxious? Dutton’s, Lambda Rising, Olsson’s, Schwartz’s, Shaman Drum, Cody’s. This list will only get longer.

I tell myself sometimes that one day, I will have to tell my grandchildren what it was like when there were still bookshops. With windows, some of them, and a door to walk through. I will tell them about the people inside who knew you by name, or by sight, or by literary tastes, and how those fine people might recommend a book to you, and how they would know all about it. I’ll tell my grandchildren that there used to be lots of stores on the street, not just dry cleaners and chain restaurants, and that people used to make things, buy things, and sell things. And books, well, they used to be made of paper.

I am quite a young man now, but if my grandchildren are anything like my contemporaries, they will laugh and they will kick me down the stairs to die with my memories in the basement bookstore where I will hopefully still work.

Because we booksellers have let our livelihood become irrelevant to many, many people. Hapless, we flail and scramble to survive between the impending incorporeal reality of the internet and the tangible, comforting tradition of our past. Worst of all, bookselling is exactly where the two met. For Amazon. Sixteen years ago.

The American Booksellers Association has been dragging indies, painfully, into the present since the present overtook us sometime in the past. For more than ten years, they’ve been moving us, kicking and screaming, toward e-commerce; you might have noticed our websites, those painfully amateurish and poorly-designed rocks that we’ve hurled at Jeff Bezos to no effect.

Today, we are struggling to sell books online according to a fifteen-year-old model. And we’re not, respectively or together, even a pale shade of the polished and soulless retail machine that’s destroying us. But mimicking Amazon is too much like loving the beast that’s chewing our entrails, and what we do best, we still do in our stores. What we do online is a poor imitation. Amazon has done nothing wrong. and we have done nothing.

Recently, in a bid to bring us up to the Amazon standard, the ABA enabled Google Preview on our e-commerce sites. Are you aware of the degree to which Google previews these books? Something to the tune of 20% of the book is viewable at a time. Some books are long and some are short, but the effect is that Google is making one fifth of these books freely available. And to a bookstore like mine, one that relies heavily on rapidly falling textbook sales, this means that students will have free access, through our site, to more of their textbooks than they were planning on reading to begin with. Our new business plan includes facilitating a cost-free alternative to shopping at our stores. We are hastening our demise by underscoring our irrelevance to the few customers that still have the inclination to visit our website in the first place.

The isn’t just a battle for dollars. This is a losing war for the hearts and minds of our customers, for the folks that we know by sight, and that Amazon knows better by algorithm. Most booksellers aren’t out to make a killing or a dime. We’re trying to make a living, sure—but by putting the best of what we know in your hands. The best of our friends and customers ask often how business is, and the majority of us can only shrug. There is a time when the bookseller needs to stop his and her panicked breeziness about the state of affairs and tell our customers, point blank, the truth. Business isn’t good, and let me tell you: spending money is a political act, a ballot cast for the kind of world you want to live in. There is no right or wrong answer, but if you don’t shop locally, in the real world, there won’t be one left when you step outside.

- Jeff Waxman

23 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jeff Waxman from The Front Table was kind enough to let me write a pretty long piece on Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, a book that I absolutely love. Rodoreda’s something special, and the book (which is paper-over-board—get it while it’s hot!) has one of the most intricate, fitting, and cool covers we’ve published so far.

Aside from the exposure to excellent works of literature from all over the world, the best thing about my work with literature in translation is the editorial trips to Spain, to France, to Estonia, to German, to Argentina—and I’m surprised more people don’t become translators or publishers for this alone. I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda—arguably the most influential Catalan author of the twentieth century—during such an editorial trip to Barcelona a few years back that was organized by the brilliant and hip Ramon Llull Institut and consisted of four days of meetings with editors, publishers, critics, and Catalan authors.

Catalan culture is in a bit of a tricky position. A completely different language from Castilian (what we commonly refer to as “Spanish”), Catalan was strongly discouraged during the Franco regime, and a number of Catalan artists—Rodoreda included—went into exile during this time. After Franco’s death in 1975, there’s been resurgence in interest in the Catalan language and in Catalan culture as a whole. Catalonia—located in the northeast part of Spain, bordering France and including Barcelona—has taken pride in reclaiming its literary and artistic heritage, and promoting its unique society to the rest of the world. On the literary end of things, the selection of Catalonia as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007 (the first region—in contrast to country—to be honored as such), really helped raise the awareness of Catalan literature among editors, writers, and reviewers around the world.

That said, Quim Monzo’s self-referential opening speech at the book fair (Monzo is another Catalan author I learned about during this trip and that Open Letter will be publishing) is honest to a point of self-deprecation about the worldwide interest in Catalan literature:

“Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few.”

So where does Mercè Rodoreda fit into all this?

Click here for the rest.

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.

3 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House, which is coming out from New Directions next month.

Rosales was a Cuban exile who was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and ended up committing suicide. Before taking his own life, he destroyed most of his writings, leaving behind only two works: The Halfway House and El Juego de la Viola, which is also forthcoming from New Directions.

Jeff Waxman (who works at 57th St. Books and edits The Front Table) wrote this review, which begins:

The first of Cuban author Guillermo Rosales’s novels to be translated into English, The Halfway House is not a story that we’re accustomed to. This is the anti-success story, one in which hope is choked out by failure and abandonment; this is the greater, sicker part of the immigration narrative. The Halfway House is without spiritual redemption, but somewhere in this hopeless mess lies some kind of beauty.

In his excellent introduction, José Manuel Prieto asserts that this book is Dantean. Indeed, this book is a shot of light through the darkness of human misery and William Figueras is our Virgil, our narrator. This novel tells Figueras’s story, following him from his first day in a boarding home to a day just like it three years later. Figueras comes to the halfway house as a last resort, a place to go when his relatives have disowned him and “nothing more can be done.” Though he begins his time in the halfway house as a victim—his portable television is stolen moments after he arrives—Figueras participates in the suffering of his fellow residents, beating and abusing them, stealing from them, and being complicit in their sexual abuse. The fact that they’re effectively unaware of their own misery and unused to anything else doesn’t matter; Figueras knows what he’s doing and he’s as much a devil as he is a guide, and as much a sinner as he is a lover.

Click here for the full review.

3 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The first of Cuban author Guillermo Rosales’s novels to be translated into English, The Halfway House is not a story that we’re accustomed to. This is the anti-success story, one in which hope is choked out by failure and abandonment; this is the greater, sicker part of the immigration narrative. The Halfway House is without spiritual redemption, but somewhere in this hopeless mess lies some kind of beauty.

In his excellent introduction, José Manuel Prieto asserts that this book is Dantean. Indeed, this book is a shot of light through the darkness of human misery and William Figueras is our Virgil, our narrator. This novel tells Figueras’s story, following him from his first day in a boarding home to a day just like it three years later. Figueras comes to the halfway house as a last resort, a place to go when his relatives have disowned him and “nothing more can be done.” Though he begins his time in the halfway house as a victim—his portable television is stolen moments after he arrives—Figueras participates in the suffering of his fellow residents, beating and abusing them, stealing from them, and being complicit in their sexual abuse. The fact that they’re effectively unaware of their own misery and unused to anything else doesn’t matter; Figueras knows what he’s doing and he’s as much a devil as he is a guide, and as much a sinner as he is a lover.

His love appears in the guise of another resident, the angelic Frances. Her innocence is merely her lack of agency: she wants to die, but lacks the will to kill herself. With Figueras, she finds hope again and, in middle-age, he seems finally to find purpose, a glimmer of hope—before she is taken from him and he returns again to the undirected tableau of human suffering that makes up the majority of this work.

But what, or who, is Figueras? In a home populated by various shades, by caricatures of piss-soaked humanity, he’s the only honest-to-goodness person, but what kind of person? In one moment, late in the book, Figueras is a saint: As I pass Pepe, the older of the two retards, I take his bald head in my hands and kiss it; earlier, he’s a monster: I look at him, disgusted. His forehead is bleeding. Upon seeing this, I feel a strange pleasure. I grab the towel, twist it, and whip his frail chest; a bit later, he’s a lover: ‘Oh Frances,’ I say, kissing her sweetly on the mouth; William Figueras is all of these things because he’s a man, a twisted reflection of the shadowy characters around him with the painful gift of consciousness. This is how Rosales works.

Reading this book, such a variety of flavors wash over the tongue—a rawness, sour shocks of bile, of mold and neglect, of sweat and urine. Almost tangible, these sensations. Amid this crudity of emotion and circumstance, there’s no real limiting of language. We experience the book through a narrator who never strikes one as mad—mad only in that he stays in this place—but who instead seems too urbane for the setting, too cultured for his own reality. This, it seems to me, is a perennial problem as literary men and women attempt narratives of a cruder sort, narratives that lend themselves more to wet expression than to any belletristic goal. And many authors fail for this reason. They fail to convey this rough reality without poetry—or worse, their protagonists are written as thoughtful autodidacts simply to blur the line between the voice of the character and that of the author. With Rosales, however, there’s no artifice and no mistake; he’s imbued Figueras with an intellectual past-life that belongs to both men:

. . . by the age of fifteen I had read the great Proust, Hesse, Joyce, Miller, Mann. . . . I finished writing a novel in Cuba that told a love story. . . .The novel was never published and my love story was never known by the public at large. The government’s literary specialists said my novel was morose, pornographic, and also irreverent, because it dealt harshly with the Communist Party. After that I went crazy. . . .and I stopped writing.

This book does not pretend to be great literature—it doesn’t have the lofty goals that one imagines in Bolaño, Borges, or Zambra. Though it has high-minded, socially relevant themes, it doesn’t seem to have any purpose beyond the expoasition of pain. It’s too ugly not to be beautiful and too ugly to have been written for the sake of beauty. This novella is a painful trip into the mind of a man for whom the world is real, but somehow incoherent and unfeeling. Figueras, our educated and erudite narrator never goes crazy—the world around him does. Maybe he stopped writing—and here I cannot separate the author and his character—the storytelling went on and in the internal narrative that this book represents, Figueras expresses himself with more grace, poetry and reason than a crazy man ever could.

23 September 08 | Chad W. Post |

In the world of Hungarian literature, of Kertész and Krúdy, of Konrád and Krasznahorkai, how can a writer stand out? Attila Bartis answers that question with his foul masterwork, Tranquility. First published in 2001 and in English for the first time this month, Bartis’s Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.

Set in post-communist Budapest, this novel is the life of Andor Weér, a writer. Weér is a continually conflicted character and bears comparison to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Zuckerman, particularly so in his disturbing relationships with women, especially his mother. Rebeka Weér is a living corpse, a reclusive actress who, though she hasn’t seen a stage in decades, has yet to give up her overwrought theatricality. The home they share—which her son frequently refers to as a crypt—is cluttered with stolen stage furniture, “the armchair had one belonged to Lady Macbeth, the bed to Laura Lenbach, and the chest of drawers to Anna Karenina.” In flashbacks, Ms. Weér is a singularly self-absorbed woman, sexually liberated and unfeeling toward her children. When her daughter, a gifted concert violinist, leaves communist Hungary to pursue her career elsewhere, Rebeka Weér’s reaction is macabre and cold:

She opened the coffin with her foot and threw in Judit’s letters. Then all of the sheet music from Paganini to Stravinsky, then the music stand, the strings and the resin. From the birth certificate and the left-behind clothes to Judit’s coffee mug, she threw everything into the coffin . . . anything with the slightest hint at Judit Weér’s existence would go into the coffin.

And as if the ceremonial killing of her daughter were not enough, she buried her also, then:

. . . she purchased ten blank death notices and . . . continued to copy from the telephone book the mailing address of the Ministry, because she was sending death notices not only to my sister, but to the theatre’s party secretary.

Tranquility is a book that never considers its reader—a fact I find gratifying. In fact, the novel is so thoroughly immersed in the troubled mind of Andor Weér that we lose sight of Attila Bartis completely. Weér is so wholly developed, so completely bared to the reader, as to seem more real than his author. Weér seems to have written this novel himself; these are his thoughts and memories and not merely thoughts and memories ascribed to him by some mysterious author. The style of the text, the tendency to run as a stream of consciousness and to occasionally blur together phrases like, “wherehaveyoubeenson” and “Idon’tknowmyself,” makes it all the more internal, personal to the character.

Much can be said of Weér and his peculiar development. The novel’s form, however, is what makes it truly exceptional, and what makes it real. Time is utterly fluid; events from Weér’s are presented to the reader without chronology becoming at all confusing; this is some very artful time-play and well worth the price of admission. Through this device, Weér’s miserable life is relived for our benefit, from his early experiences with sex through the torture of life with his addled mother.

As his mother ages. the phrase “wherehaveyoubeenson” is a frequent one; Weér’s mother has grown old and weird, Weér writes:

That for fifteen years I’ve been getting the vitamins, the Valerian drops, lipsticks, nail polish and hair dyes for my mother and for fifteen years she’s been sitting in the flickering gray light of the TV or standing in the blind spots of her mirror. Considered in this way, she’s been dead for years. An ordinary corpse, its stench concealed by the smell of mint tea and its skin rubbed human-colored with vanishing-cream.

This Hitchcockian corpse-mother haunts Weér, but adds a predictable stability to his life through times of change.

Really, many aspects of this novel reflect the uncertainty that came of living in flux, through the waxing and waning of communist rule. As in the quote above, Weér’s mother fearfully (and vindictively), buried her daughter alive. Hungarians are overheard to say things like “We’ll have to pay the bill one day for our new freedom” and Weér himself noticed that, “. . . everybody was talking politics then too. Some people wanted neutrality with lots of banks, as in Switzerland . . .” Somehow communism always seems to lead to oppressive bureaucracy, to a Kafkaesque state, to absurdity. For a reasonable person, this can be crushing. For literature, however, it is an unbelievable godsend. An encounter with the police brought an incredible exchange that stands out as one of the most powerfully disturbing in a book of already extraordinary power.

Much of this power comes from the remarkable depth of depravity in this novel. The grotesque realism provides a daring contrast to the self-indulgent introspection of Weér, but no respite from the overwhelming darkness. My sense of good taste doesn’t prevent me from mentioning Andor Weér’s early dalliance with incest, but certain passages did cause me to blush uncomfortably; I won’t quote them. This book approaches sexuality like a war and the acts described are damaging and painful, to both the narrator and to the reader. This is powerful writing intent on exposing human sexuality as it exposes so many private things.

More than anything else, that sense of exposure captures the central purpose of this book; nothing is sacrosanct: not religion, not government, not life, love, or motherhood. Bartis and Weér, Weér and Bartis; they touch everything normal and leave nightmarish fingerprints and filthy smears across it all. Their artistry, though, is thrilling and this book is an extraordinary achievement. But for me, one question remains: in all of this obscenity and blood and emotional turmoil, where can one find any tranquility?

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Front Table has gone through a few changes over the years. Dedi Felman—who, until recently, worked with Words Without Borders—helped found this publication, which Seminary Co-op (in Chicago) distributed to all of their members. At one point in time, Philip Leventhal—now an editor at Columbia University Press—was the managing editor. And now, The Front Table has entered the digital age as an online book magazine edited by Jeff Waxman (who has written a number of great reviews for us).

In the near future, this magazine will include a fully scannable image of the physical front table at Seminary Co-op, which you really have to see to believe. I can’t remember the exact number, but I believe there are over 100 books on display (either on tables, or faced out along the wall) in Seminary—a decent sized space, but not the largest indie bookstore in the world.

There are also Book Lists of what booksellers are reading, an Editors Speak section allowing University and literary editors to talk about a book they’re publishing, and a review section that’s being updated very regularly.

Even though this just went live, it’s already a pretty impressive site, and I’m sure it will continue to expand as time goes on.

27 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our latest review is of Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl, one of this year’s Reading the World titles. Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago provides the review.

27 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In their usual classy-as-hell manner, New York Review Books delivered a real gem last month in the 2008 Reading the World selection THE POST-OFFICE GIRL, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Joel Rotenberg. Zweig’s posthumously published book is bitter, brutal, and everything I love about post-war literature while still retaining some of the sweet softness of, say, A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book is aptly billed as one which “lays bare the private life of capitalism”—it also exposes the meaninglessness and triviality of life and class while remaining firmly realistic.

The title character is Christine Hoeflehner, a mere shade of postal official in a province outside Vienna who, in her miserable innocence, knows neither pleasure nor joy. Until, of course, she does. Ms. Hoeflehner is a survivor of the first World War, but only in the sense that she is still living. The Great War took the family business and, in fact, much of the family. She is old before her time and her mother an invalid and her charge. As for many, misery became the constant. Zweig writes:

The war has in fact ended. But poverty has not. It has only ducked beneath the barrage of ordinances, crawled foxily behind the paper ramparts of war loans and banknotes with their ink still wet. Now it’s creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry, and bold, and eating what’s left in the gutters of the war. An entire winter of denominations and zeroes snows down from the sky…every thousand melts in your hand.

Imagine taking a young woman from that bleak picture, a woman who has always worked and never known luxury or rest and whisking her away to a palace—The Palace Hotel—it’s like something from a fairy tale. For Christine Hoeflehner, the fairy tale came true. Her wealthy aunt and uncle lavish her with all kinds of lovely foods and clothes. There and then, her name changes. She becomes Fräulein Christiane von Boolen, a glamorous doppelganger to her former self, a sort of gaudy butterfly entranced by the life of society and by the attentions of young men unscarred by the great tragedies of life. Zweig writes:

But how could she think, when would she think? She has no time to herself. No sooner does she appear in the lounge than someone from the merry band is there to drag her along somewhere—on a drive or a photo excursion, to play games, chat, dance; there’s always a shout of welcome, and then it’s bedlam. The pageant of idle busyness goes on all day. There’s no end of games played, things to smoke, nibble on, laugh at, and she falls into the whirl without resistance when any of the young fellows shouts for Fräulein von Boolen…

Perhaps it is odd that I mentioned that children’s classic, A LITTLE PRINCESS. No, it’s not odd—in Ms. Hoeflehner there is such a simple appreciation of luxury goods, an intimate affection for all the pleasures of wealth. She is childlike in the way she takes in pleasure, perhaps selfish, but blamelessly so. For all his criticism of the wealthy, it must be noted that Zweig doesn’t condemn wealth or luxury. His characters love comfort as we all love comfort and who, honestly, can deny its charms? As before, this “lays bare the private life of capitalism,” it doesn’t attack it, but reveal it. The novel doesn’t make moral claims; Zweig doesn’t judge the way people live their lives, merely contrasts them, makes glaringly obvious the inequalities—without assigning blame.

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

When one reads a book of this range, it is impossible not to stare hard at the author who crafted these words, who built—or rebuilt—this world of extremes, of pleasure and deprivation. There’s a disturbing autobiographical element. Even for someone only vaguely aware of Zweig’s life, his personal history seems obscenely connected to his characters, as though he had already lived out several possible lives through his books. Toward the end of World War II, having achieved safety in Brazil, Zweig and his wife killed themselves— out of despair for European civilization. His suicide was the suicide of Europe, his death was the death of humanism. Zweig was a well-known pacifist and an adored writer. His forfeit was a recognition of his failed hope and we can mourn him, but not too long or too strong. Such a man as Zweig was too sincere to invent anything as improbable as a happy ending. His characters chose life, almost arbitrarily, and after all, there isn’t that much difference.

THE POST-OFFICE GIRL
by Stefan Zweig
Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
New York Review Books
257 pgs, $14.00

26 March 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

At the outset, I didn’t particularly care for this book. Yet, as a work of fiction, The Have-Nots bears no great deficiencies and has, in fact, a certain charm to it. In spite of this, or, perhaps, because of it, I can’t love this book. Perhaps my heart is too small to embrace the multitude of characters, or perhaps my distaste for post-9/11 literature is too great. This is such a novel of our time. The Have-Nots is a not a book about people who are lacking, but people who have too much—too much pain, too many memories, too much angst and ambiguity. They feel too much and dwell too much in each other. What they have not is any real awareness of the poverty of their respective existences. My distaste for this book is an entirely personal reaction to a fairly good, maybe even great, novel.

It is a very German work. The Holocaust plays a sort of bizarre Jiminy Cricket role in post World War II German consciousness. It’s ever-present now, framing and informing German literature. In this novel, Hacker plays with a narrative clockwork that I first encountered in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In the four—really many more than that—simultaneous stories, dozens of lives perform work on the others; each story acts as a cog, turning the others in a gloriously complex movement that anyone could appreciate. Like Anderson’s characters, Hacker’s characters are grotesque, spiritually and emotionally deformed and, for all of that, beautiful. Hacker hasn’t Anderson’s or Joyce’s ability to define individual characters, but her grasp of this intricate form is extraordinary. Perhaps I’m reaching too much into my own recent activities, but this book is like the television show Lost.

Seriously, I think it is. Bear with me.

The Have-Nots follows the interwoven stories of dozens of characters in two countries: Jakob and Isabelle, Jim and Mae, Dave and Sara, and Andras and Magda. The beauty of these stories is that each exists and continues without the reader’s attention. To begin to describe the interconnectedness of it all would either be futile or take an incredibly long time. In either case, I won’t. Central to the novel are Jakob and Isabelle, a German couple who move to England where Jakob is to take a position made vacant by the death of a colleague in the attack on the World Trade Center. Isabelle, his new wife, is an illustrator. These bourgeoisie are the most significant characters, yet the haziest—they’re constantly lost in the world around them, swallowed by a book that attempts to encapsulate so many different lives that those at the center are lost in the drama of those at the edges and their hopeless stories full of violence, crime, abuse, drugs, and just about every other misfortune these characters could quietly experience. Sound like any award-winning television show in particular? Yessir, it sounds like Lost.

The world—even just the Western World—has always seemed enormous, with nations separated by geography, but especially by language. Hacker collapses this too-large world and brings Germany and England and New York within painful millimeters of each other. Perhaps in literature in translation, in books like Ms. Hacker’s, we all have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with cousins lost since Babel, with writers telling our stories in other languages. We were lost, but we’re now found through the shared emotion and shared events of novels like this one. In all of its beauty and complexity, Hacker’s book, which I still cannot love, has brought me to the realization that we’re all closer than I thought; uncomfortably close. Just like Lost.

This is also novel about class, but also about motion and interconnectedness and simultaneity and contrast. Nothing remains in stasis. Our characters occupy very different worlds and yet they exist side-by-side, largely anonymously, but in perfect symphony. This book’s triumph and its failure is in its unwavering pursuit of truth.

Unlike Lost.

The Have-Nots
by Katharina Hacker
Translated from the German by Helen Atkins
Europa Editions
341 pages, $14.95
978-1-933372-41-9

26 March 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Katharina Hacker’s The Have-Nots, which won the German Book Prize for 2006 and was recently published by Europa Editions.

Jeff Waxman—who also reviewed Elias Khoury’s Yalo at Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago and is currently very obsessed with Lost. (Who isn’t?)

7 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week we posted two new reviews, both of titles published by Archipelago. The first is a review by E.J. of The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre. (Fabre will be touring throughout the U.S. starting later this month. All the current dates can be found at Archipelago’s site.)

Jeff Waxman gives Yalo by Elias Khoury some serious praise in his review of this title, which is also just out from Archipelago. Jeff works at Seminary Co-op in Chicago, and will hopefully be a regular reviewer for us.

And speaking of which, if there are any booksellers—or other literary readers in general—interested in reviewing works in translation for us, please feel free to contact me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.

7 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Elias Khoury’s new novel, Yalo—out earlier this month from Archipelago—is a deep examination of truth and memory set against the gritty backdrop of post-war Lebanon. The book’s premise appears to be simple: in the first pages, it becomes apparent that the title character has been arrested for rape. Rape is a simple crime, with simple motives. In this story, however, nothing is as simple as it first appears. Yalo’s greatest crime may not be rape, Yalo may not be guilty, and Yalo may no longer even be Yalo.

In an overtly political framing, Khoury not only delves into his usual themes of identity and dislocation, but he condemns the brutal Lebanese justice system and exposes the international preference for tortured convenience over truth. The scene in which Yalo is forced to stand waist deep in a burlap sack with an angry cat chewing his genitals. will haunt me for as long as memory. Yalo is a political novel, but not merely that. It is philosophical and so much more. It’s almost too much.

Necessarily thicker than most of Khoury’s works, Yalo bears more scrutiny and re-readings than his other novels and in this literary masterpiece, translator Peter Theroux has achieved something exceptional. More than anything else, it is about the conflicts of identity and language in a region rife with upheaval and refugees. From his grandfather, Yalo inherited a complex culture, a legacy of statelessness found in the blending of Kurdish Islam and Lebanese Christianity. This blending of cultures includes an array of languages—Arabic, Syriac, Kurdish—all of which Theroux manages to convey without artifice and in impressive English. All of the alienation of tongues since the Tower of Babel is borne through startlingly clear prose. Yalo’s total estrangement may be the most successful of Khoury’s evocations and it is a constant theme in Yalo’s life. He is a haunted man and a man trapped in a crisis of intangible memory and identity. It’s more than the story of Yalo’s arrest, it’s more than the story of his imprisonment or his rapes and thefts. It’s the story of the entrapment of every character, from his lovesick mother to his grandfather the cohno, the priest. They are trapped as we are trapped—trapped in consciousness, trapped by mortality, trapped in a world that is not and cannot be objective.

Though part of an Arabic literary tradition that includes Naguib Mahfouz and Abdul Rahman Munif, the novel (in general) and this novel, are deeply Western. Influences of Western writers like Kafka, Beckett, and Nabokov are felt in the inhumanity of the state, the untenability of Yalo’s position and in his forced examination of himself and his conduct. Khoury’s play with time is also Western, but hey, the world is getting smaller. This story sprawls and turns in on itself, creeping toward a distillation and then an even greater distillation—first toward a personal truth and then a rejection of the objective altogether This revisiting of events is hardly unique and many other writers have engaged in opaque games with memory and with perspective. Khoury, however, refreshes the play. No memory can be trusted in a single-person narrative in which the narrator himself is unsure, unstable, and undergoing torture. Is he a rapist? Is he a terrorist? Is he a thief? Yes, Yalo answers, but I am no longer Yalo.

Before I was halfway through the story, I was violently engaged. I filthily chewed through the last pages with stuttering eyes and trembling hands. I hardly exaggerate—great talent is rare and great realizations rarer. This novel has both. Further praise must go to Archipelago for introducing it in such a gorgeous edition; like many of their recent books, it appeared in an understated hardcover that improves immeasurably on the garish Picador paperbacks of Khoury’s works that appeared late last year. Yalo is a tremendous new book and I look forward to more Khoury/Theroux collaborations.

Yalo
By Elias Khoury
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux
Archipelago Books
260 pgs, $25.00

....
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