23 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Tom Segev’s Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends, which is available from Doubleday.

We don’t review a ton of nonfiction or biographies or untranslated titles here, but Jessica (who is one of our regular reviewers) was interested in writing about this. Unfortunately, it sounds like she was a bit disappointed . . .

Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend is a poorly organized book that presents the reader with a disjointed narrative chronicling the life of a supremely caustic, yet also compassionate, man. The title suggests that readers will be presented with a traditional biography, chronologically narrating the private and personal life of an individual who through an accident of birth, or professional merit, has led a noteworthy life. While Simon Wiesenthal certainly falls into the latter category for his admirable and extraordinary work hunting down and legally prosecuting Nazi collaborators and Nazis alike, this book fails to do any real justice to Wiesenthal through its mediocre prose, confusing and awkward organization and narrative progression, and unnecessarily and overly long tangents which litter the text.

Simon Wiesenthal’s life story is well known to many the world over. Born in Austria in 1908, Wiesenthal spent four and a half years in Nazi concentration camps. On February 15, 1945 he was liberated from the concentration camp Mauthausen, and from that day forward vowed to devote his life to bringing Nazi criminals to justice for this horrific crimes they committed against Jews during the Holocaust. Wiesenthal succeeded in locating hundreds of Nazis in hiding, most of whom fled to South America and the United States in order to avoid prosecution for their crimes. Popular public memory of Wiesenthal by and large remembers him as an altruistic hero whose own Holocaust experiences drove him to pursue what Segev calls “not for glory or personal vendetta did Wiesenthal hunt Nazi criminals, but for a simple sense of justice.” In Life and Legend, however, Segev analyzes the lesser known, and not altogether likeable aspects of Wiesenthal’s personality, and the creative ways in which Wiesenthal constructed his public persona, and the controversial and contradictory stories that Wiesenthal told about his Holocaust experiences; throughout the book Segev suggests that Wiesenthal exaggerated his life experience to inflate his importance and aggrandize his Holocaust ordeals. Whatever the controversies surrounding Wiesenthal’s life story are, there is no question that his contributions to Holocaust memory—especially in the United States— along with his tireless and arduous work bringing Nazi criminals to justice are profoundly admirable. Unfortunately Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend fails to do justice to an extraordinary and complex man.

Click here to read the full review.

23 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend is a poorly organized book that presents the reader with a disjointed narrative chronicling the life of a supremely caustic, yet also compassionate, man. The title suggests that readers will be presented with a traditional biography, chronologically narrating the private and personal life of an individual who through an accident of birth, or professional merit, has led a noteworthy life. While Simon Wiesenthal certainly falls into the latter category for his admirable and extraordinary work hunting down and legally prosecuting Nazi collaborators and Nazis alike, this book fails to do any real justice to Wiesenthal through its mediocre prose, confusing and awkward organization and narrative progression, and unnecessarily and overly long tangents which litter the text.

Simon Wiesenthal’s life story is well known to many the world over. Born in Austria in 1908, Wiesenthal spent four and a half years in Nazi concentration camps. On February 15, 1945 he was liberated from the concentration camp Mauthausen, and from that day forward vowed to devote his life to bringing Nazi criminals to justice for this horrific crimes they committed against Jews during the Holocaust. Wiesenthal succeeded in locating hundreds of Nazis in hiding, most of whom fled to South America and the United States in order to avoid prosecution for their crimes. Popular public memory of Wiesenthal by and large remembers him as an altruistic hero whose own Holocaust experiences drove him to pursue what Segev calls “not for glory or personal vendetta did Wiesenthal hunt Nazi criminals, but for a simple sense of justice.” In Life and Legend, however, Segev analyzes the lesser known, and not altogether likeable aspects of Wiesenthal’s personality, and the creative ways in which Wiesenthal constructed his public persona, and the controversial and contradictory stories that Wiesenthal told about his Holocaust experiences; throughout the book Segev suggests that Wiesenthal exaggerated his life experience to inflate his importance and aggrandize his Holocaust ordeals. Whatever the controversies surrounding Wiesenthal’s life story are, there is no question that his contributions to Holocaust memory—especially in the United States— along with his tireless and arduous work bringing Nazi criminals to justice are profoundly admirable. Unfortunately Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend fails to do justice to an extraordinary and complex man.

In the first chapter, author Tom Segev—an Israeli journalist and award-winning nonfiction writer—launches into a biography and analysis of famous Nazi Adolf Eichmann, and not Wiesenthal, as one would expect from a biography on Wiesenthal’s life. There is no apparent clear chronological or thematic organization; chapter titles are quotations taken from things Wiesenthal has said, and the context of these sayings are not altogether clear until halfway through the chapters, which is confusing and awkward a majority of the time; one cannot understand exactly where Segev is ultimately leading readers, and what his point is.

Very brief paragraphs form the foundation of the narrative, and they are typeset in such a way as to make the reader feel that they are reading a series of articles instead of a cohesive story. The abundance of these paragraph breaks make for a disjointed reading experience and choppy progression. A large part of the first quarter of the book is dedicated barely in part to Wiesenthal’s life, and instead is given over to the international search for Eichmann, and Wiesenthal’s role in the search effort. Additionally, Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend focuses entirely upon Wiesenthal’s work seeking to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to trial, and very little upon his personal life. Overall it reads much more like a “who’s who” of the more prominent Nazis Wiesenthal persisted in seeking out—especially Adolf Eichmann. The primary narrative thrust is devoted to Wiesenthal’s methods and processes he utilizes in order to achieve his goals, which reads less like a compelling story and more like a business plan. A great deal of attention is also allocated to the specific Nazis themselves, and their transgressions.

The book’s narrative and writing style stumbles and falters in overly long tangents that fail to further contextualize Wiesenthal’s life. Tangential topics include pages long biographies of people Wiesenthal worked with, theological and philosophical arguments on the nature of forgiveness, and movies made about Wiesenthal and bios on the actors who portrayed him, and how Wiesenthal reacted to them (he liked Ben Kingsley but disliked Laurence Olivier). The few compelling passages describe Wiesenthal’s commitment to learning from the past; he firmly believed that convicted Nazi criminals should not in fact be executed, as many believed, but instead he felt that “a life imprisonment, forever haunted by ones conscience, is far worse than a quick and painless death.” Additionally, Wiesenthal firmly believed that Nazis should not be executed because they could supply replies to historical questions: this was the main reason he had objected to the execution of Eichmann.

Ultimately Simon Wiesenthal is less a true biography chronicling the private and professional life of the world’s most famous Nazi seekers, but rather it is more a chronicle of Zionism, Judaism, anti-Semitism, and brining Nazis and Nazi collaborators to justice following the Second World War. All worthwhile topics to be sure, but readers hoping to truly learn more about Simon Wiesenthal’s life would do better to find a less disjointed and organizationally flawed biography.

18 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Sandra Kalniete’s With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis and available from Dalkey Archive Press.

This book is part of Dalkey’s “Baltic Literature Series,” and is one of the rare nonfiction hardcovers that they’ve published. It’s also one of maybe three works translated from Latvian and published in the U.S. over the past few years.

Jessica LeTourneur is one of our frequent reviewers, despite being a Cubs fan. She studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is an ambitious and uniquely constructed work of literary nonfiction. Published as a part of the Baltic Literature Series by Dalkey Archive Press, this moving and eloquent book tells the story of author Sandra Kalniete’s Latvian family, and the harrowing hardships they endured over the course of fifty years and three occupations—longer than any other European nation experienced in the twentieth century. In telling her family’s story, Kalniete also tells the story of Latvia’s twentieth-century history, illuminating an often-neglected, largely ignored, nation’s struggles with the twin plagues infecting Europe in the twentieth century: communism and fascism. At first glance a family memoir, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is so much more than a personal memoir. It is a literary and historical tour de force whose searing indictment of Nazi Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s policies of terror and oppression teaches readers that while these policies may have broken human bodies, it could not break the bonds of family.

Sandra Kalniete was born in 1952 to Latvian parents who had been permanently exiled to Siberia. In 1957 she and her family were finally allowed to return to their home country, four long years after Stalin’s death in 1953. Kalniete’s bold prose and artistic narrative style convey the impression that she makes her living by her pen, and not her politics. In the 1980s and ‘90s Kalniete served as the Latvian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, France, and even to UNESCO. She became Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2002, and has since served as the first Latvian Commissioner of the European Union. Latvia’s present and future may reside in Kalniete’s professional life, but in her personal life, it is her country’s past which she takes to task, exploring the deepest recesses of her and her family’s memory in search of historical truths.

Click here to read the entire review.

18 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is an ambitious and uniquely constructed work of literary nonfiction. Published as a part of the Baltic Literature Series by Dalkey Archive Press, this moving and eloquent book tells the story of author Sandra Kalniete’s Latvian family, and the harrowing hardships they endured over the course of fifty years and three occupations—longer than any other European nation experienced in the twentieth century. In telling her family’s story, Kalniete also tells the story of Latvia’s twentieth-century history, illuminating an often-neglected, largely ignored, nation’s struggles with the twin plagues infecting Europe in the twentieth century: communism and fascism. At first glance a family memoir, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is so much more than a personal memoir. It is a literary and historical tour de force whose searing indictment of Nazi Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s policies of terror and oppression teaches readers that while these policies may have broken human bodies, it could not break the bonds of family.

Sandra Kalniete was born in 1952 to Latvian parents who had been permanently exiled to Siberia. In 1957 she and her family were finally allowed to return to their home country, four long years after Stalin’s death in 1953. Kalniete’s bold prose and artistic narrative style convey the impression that she makes her living by her pen, and not her politics. In the 1980s and ‘90s Kalniete served as the Latvian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, France, and even to UNESCO. She became Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2002, and has since served as the first Latvian Commissioner of the European Union. Latvia’s present and future may reside in Kalniete’s professional life, but in her personal life, it is her country’s past which she takes to task, exploring the deepest recesses of her and her family’s memory in search of historical truths.

In my childhood, the past was only mentioned in connection with household incidents and family events, but almost never in its political or historic significance. I grew up under the influence of Soviet propaganda, knowing almost nothing about the real history of Latvia. The latter was totally buried in silence.

Seamlessly constructing a nation’s history out of a family story is a delicate narrative prospect, but Kalniete carries it off like a duck on a pond; we know the effort being carried out beneath the water’s surface, but all we see on the surface is a seemingly-effortless calm. Kalniete leads readers Dante-like through the memory of the unmitigated horrors and tragedies that befell her family with bold language that propels the reader through the labyrinth of memory. This was no easy task for Kalniete; Latvian historians are still not permitted access to USSR archival collections that could provide complete insight into the documents pertaining to the planning and execution of Latvia’s occupation by Soviet forces in June 1940. Not coincidentally, the date of occupation was purposely chosen as the same date of the German takeover of France—June 17, 1940. “What did the fate of the small Baltic States matter in comparison to this drama, which staggered Europe and the world? Thus we were left alone with our despair.” Limited archival access aside, Kalniete reaches into the deepest recesses of her memory, and asks her family to do the same, in order to narratively construct and accurately portray events which befell Latvia and its people in the mid-twentieth century. “’Constructing memory’ could very well be the subtitle of this book,” says Valters Nollendorfs in his foreword. Kalniete is forthright with her emotional reactions to what she learns, resulting in an emotionally moving passages that elicit a visceral reaction.

When I talked to my mother about the Bilina and Petropavlovka period during the preparatory phase for this book, I did not allow myself to feel. My objective was not to interrupt the thread of recollections and to question dispassionately in order to learn as much as possible how starvation emaciates a human body and alters the spirit. When I later listened to the taped conversations, their calm flow seemed unbearable to me, so abnormal was their content. The sad story told in my mother’s everyday voice singed me with sudden waves of pain. My body shook and I had to hang onto my desk to contain my uncontrollable sobs. I could not listen to my practical voice, repeating a question about how a rat tastes or wondering how my mother had not died from eating a horse cadaver.

Kalniete’s use of clipped, fast-paced language powerfully conveys the sense of fear and confusion that reigned during the early days of Soviet occupation. The urgency, the unknown that permeated Latvian families is imparted in passages such as these:

The uncertainty that ruled in society in those June days was staggering. The most unlikely rumors were circulating. Almost nothing of what was happening with the political elite was known, since the press and the radio were totally under the control of the occupiers . . . with each new day, the feeling of humiliation grew stronger. The sharp pain could not be silenced.

Kalniete’s sparing use of overly descriptive language and eloquently constructed metaphors creates a stark world which enhances the narrative success of With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows. By utilizing linguistic simplicity, Kalniete allows emotions and emotional reactions to resonate within the reader. Far from being “cold,” you feel as though you are standing behind Kalniete’s shoulder in instances such as this:

When I have recovered from my contact with the barbarity of the prison camp death machine, I once again turn to the first page of the case file and start to read systematically and carefully. I don’t allow myself to feel emotional. However, on the fourth page a new emotional shock is in store for me. On the prisoner’s form, besides his signature, is my grandfather’s fingerprint. I dissolve into tears. I put my hand on my grandfather’s fingerprint and allow myself the illusion that our hands touch . . .”

There are times throughout the book when events are so boldly and graphically described it is almost painful to endure, such as when Kalniete describes, in painful detail, her grandfather’s death. “From that moment onward, with a distanced indifference, he watched as from his mouth, bit by bit, his lungs were spit out—in porous, pale and bloody lumps . . . Thus, drowning in blood, my grandfather Alekdandrs Kalnietis’ life ended.” Beautifully written and astonishingly simple in the emotion it conveys, passages such as this permeate With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows. Following thematic, rather than a linear chronological organization, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows reads more like a novel than a true memoir or piece of history, although it is both. Such a narrative organization contributes to the book’s ultimate success.

Following Latvian deportees’ “gradual descent into hell” is an expressively harrowing experience that impressed itself upon the reader’s psyche long after the past page has been turned. Elegant in its simplicity of language and bold in its emotional vulnerability, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows is ultimately a beautifully told story of a family and country’s resilience, survival, and revival.

21 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Geert Mak’s In Europe, which came out a few years back in Sam Garrett’s translation from the Dutch.

In Europe is a book that’s been on my “to read” pile since 2007 or so. As Jessica mentions, it’s a huge book, but one that (based on the first 40 pages and her review) is incredibly engrossing. I know this got some decent attention when the hardcover came out, but I feel like it’s a book that deserves even more than that . . . Especially now that it’s available in paperback1.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

In Europe is a heart wrenching, historically priceless, and utterly fascinating work of nonfiction. Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and part autobiography, it chronicles Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s year-long sojourn from January 1999–December 1999 around the European continent as a sort of “final inspection”. Far beyond simply recounting facts and dates, Mak beautifully individualizes and humanizes the often staggeringly horrific events that marred twentieth-century Europe. Mak’s seamless integration of historical factoids, firsthand interviews, and present-day impressions garnered throughout his journey make for a refreshingly original piece whose language and lessons continue to pervade the reader’s psyche long after the last page has been turned.

Commissioned by his employer, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, to tackle this daunting, monumental project, Mak’s articles appeared daily on the paper’s front page. Within In Europe, Mak flushes out of these articles into longer narrative pieces that fit into a cohesive work of nonfiction. Its narrative is framed as a historical journey, and as far as possible, Mak follows the chronological course of twentieth-century European history, “in search of the traces it has left behind.” Beginning in Paris in 1900 and ending in Sarajevo in 1999, Mak journeys throughout Europe’s major cities and countries with a frequently and deftness rivaling Jason Bourne. The essential question Mak seeks to answer throughout his travels and research is “what shape is the continent in, at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Concluding his prologue, Mak reflects:

“Traveling across Europe, all those months, had been like peeling off layers of old paint. More than ever I realized how, generation upon generation, a shell of distance and alienation had developed between Eastern and Western Europeans.”

Click here to read the full review.

1 And yes, I know the cover image we’re using is from the hardcover, but the paperback version totally sucks.

21 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Europe is a heart wrenching, historically priceless, and utterly fascinating work of nonfiction. Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and part autobiography, it chronicles Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s year-long sojourn from January 1999–December 1999 around the European continent as a sort of “final inspection”. Far beyond simply recounting facts and dates, Mak beautifully individualizes and humanizes the often staggeringly horrific events that marred twentieth-century Europe. Mak’s seamless integration of historical factoids, firsthand interviews, and present-day impressions garnered throughout his journey make for a refreshingly original piece whose language and lessons continue to pervade the reader’s psyche long after the last page has been turned.

Commissioned by his employer, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, to tackle this daunting, monumental project, Mak’s articles appeared daily on the paper’s front page. Within In Europe, Mak flushes out of these articles into longer narrative pieces that fit into a cohesive work of nonfiction. Its narrative is framed as a historical journey, and as far as possible, Mak follows the chronological course of twentieth-century European history, “in search of the traces it has left behind.” Beginning in Paris in 1900 and ending in Sarajevo in 1999, Mak journeys throughout Europe’s major cities and countries with a frequently and deftness rivaling Jason Bourne. The essential question Mak seeks to answer throughout his travels and research is “what shape is the continent in, at the conclusion of the twentieth century?” Concluding his prologue, Mak reflects:

Traveling across Europe, all those months, had been like peeling off layers of old paint. More than ever I realized how, generation upon generation, a shell of distance and alienation had developed between Eastern and Western Europeans.

The dense, brick-like nature of this 834 page tome might appear intimidating to potential readers, but they would be mistaken to associate length with an overburdened, dense, and potentially dull narrative. In Europe possesses a unique structure that strengthens its readability. Each chapter finds Mak in a new European city, at a different point in European history. He finds himself in Versailles in 1919, on Normandy’s beaches in 1942, in Berlin in 1945, in Chernobyl in 1986. In each city Mak’s historical journey elucidate readers in the finer points of German mythology, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Paris’s architecture, and poverty in London. Mak’s shrewd impressions and historical lessons are drawn from first person interviews with people whom “history left behind,” and shies not away from pasts that the powers that be would rather the world forget. Each country or city’s relationship and attitude towards its too-often insalubrious not-so-distant history is a theme that is consistently explored throughout the sinuous narrative. The dead bear no markers, and history is swept off the front stoop.

Every country and every political movement prefers to write a history that makes it feel comfortable, a portrait in soft pastels, a story that does no violence to the self-image. The losers are usually unable to paint any portrait whatsoever. They simply fade away, and their story is eradicated along with them . . . the dead have been hidden away beneath the soil, without a single marker. ‘Forget’ is the motto here. No one wants to rake up the past.

A laundry list of the insurmountable horrors permeating Europe in the first half of the twentieth century in the form of World Wars I and II, communism, and Stalinism comprise nearly two-thirds of the narrative. Far from being off-putting and too much for the reader to bear, Mak’s skillful narrative pacing and storytelling acumen lends In Europe a warmth and sympathy that belies the barbarity which haunted Europe in its darkest days. Mak’s vivid, descriptive language saturates and stimulates one’s senses. From Bielefeld, Germany—Anne Frank’s birthplace—Mak describes the sleepy German village as he found it in springtime:

Half-timbered villages smelling of fresh buns and newly ironed aprons. They are still there, unchanged, the rocks upon which Germany stands. The forests have their first light-green haze, the fields are brown, farmers are out ploughing everywhere, on the village square the little soldiers in the bell tower creak the hours away.

Mak’s eloquent language is no less stirring when he turns his attention towards the scars Europe’s two world wars and struggles against communism left upon the people and the land; he individualizes and puts a human face on the collective suffering of millions of people, such as he does with the Holocaust’s most famous victim, Anne Frank. The result is a poignant reminder that out of the millions dead, were individuals, families.

The Frank family home at Ganghofstrasse 24, is still standing, marked by a massive stone monument dedicated to the city’s young people—‘Her life and death, our duty’—and the same trees around it, now thick and old.

Following the end of the Second World War, Mak turns his attentions towards Russia and the Eastern Bloc, adroitly exploring the nuances of East versus West. Describing the aftershocks that befell Eastern Europe following the end of communism, from Gdansk and Moscow, he explores an almost-taboo subject: the quality of life has significantly decreased for Eastern European citizens since 1989. Slowly, the myth of the West is replaced by the reality of the West.

The collapse of the wall did not bring prosperity to huge numbers of Eastern European families, but rather shortage: at home, in the schools and hospitals, in every area . . . this clearly was not the ‘transitional period’ spoken of so widely in the West, but a decline in almost everything essential to daily life: salaries, benefits, food supplies, health care, education, government services and public safety.

As Mak cruises though Europe, though history, and out of the twentieth century—literally, on a ship christened the Marla—he ruminates on the impending European Union and all that unification implies and entails, on its shores and across the pond. Stating that “Europe’s weakness, its diversity, is also its greatest strength,” he reminds readers, lest they become complacent in Europe’s recent economic successes, that “Europe only has one chance to succeed.”

While at first glance, In Europe seems a daunting literary undertaking, it ultimately succeeds in documenting Europe’s tumultuous twentieth century with a sensitivity, deftness, and artfully engaging narrative that propels readers forward, through the years. With Mak as their guide, readers are privy to an unparalleled insight into the hearts, minds, and stories that defined a continent for a hundred years.

6 April 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, a relatively new biography on the author of Suite Francaise by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt. This originally came out in France a few years back, but is now available from Knopf in Euan Cameron’s translation.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Since 2004, the name Irene Nemirovsky has been primarily associated with her bestselling and haunting novel, Suite Francaise. Entrusted to her daughters in a suitcase in 1942, the manuscript remained untouched until 1998 when Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise, resolved to type out the handwritten novel with the aid of a magnifying glass. Published to worldwide acclaim in September 2004, Nemirovsky’s interrupted—not unfinished—novel has defined her literary celebrity, at least in the United States. Until now. With The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt provide readers will an insightful and illuminating account of a vibrant, talented, and complex woman whose life was cut all too short when she perished in Auschwitz at Nazi hands in 1942.

Celebrated as primarily a French writer, Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, a Jewish Ukrainian, the only daughter of a successful businessman and narcissistic mother. Her bourgeois childhood led to extended vacations in France—where she became proficient in the language—which proved extraordinarily useful later in her life. In January 1918, the Nemirovsky family, fearing further ramifications of the Bolshevik Revolution from their current home in Moscow, fled their home country and emigrated first to Finland, then later to France. It was during this time, that “because of boredom, purer and more all encompassing than in Kiev or Petersburg, that she started to tell herself stories, ‘all kinds of stories, which gave me great pleasure and which I returned to day after day.’” . . .

Click here to read the full piece.

6 April 11 | Chad W. Post |

Since 2004, the name Irene Nemirovsky has been primarily associated with her bestselling and haunting novel, Suite Francaise. Entrusted to her daughters in a suitcase in 1942, the manuscript remained untouched until 1998 when Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise, resolved to type out the handwritten novel with the aid of a magnifying glass. Published to worldwide acclaim in September 2004, Nemirovsky’s interrupted—not unfinished—novel has defined her literary celebrity, at least in the United States. Until now. With The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt provide readers will an insightful and illuminating account of a vibrant, talented, and complex woman whose life was cut all too short when she perished in Auschwitz at Nazi hands in 1942.

Celebrated as primarily a French writer, Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, a Jewish Ukrainian, the only daughter of a successful businessman and narcissistic mother. Her bourgeois childhood led to extended vacations in France—where she became proficient in the language—which proved extraordinarily useful later in her life. In January 1918, the Nemirovsky family, fearing further ramifications of the Bolshevik Revolution from their current home in Moscow, fled their home country and emigrated first to Finland, then later to France. It was during this time, that “because of boredom, purer and more all encompassing than in Kiev or Petersburg, that she started to tell herself stories, ‘all kinds of stories, which gave me great pleasure and which I returned to day after day.’”

This comprehensive biography of Irene Nemirovsky’s is the first of its kind to explore the details and nuances of both her complicated personal life, and her successful literary life. Originally written in French and published in France in 2007, where it achieved bestselling status, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is available in English for the first time. Part biography, part literary analysis, and part history, coauthors Philipponnat and Lienhardt have endeavored to familiarize readers with the life of this extraordinary writer, and contextualize her short stories and novels within the backdrop of the tumultuous period of history in which she lived and wrote.

“’And so, I regret nothing. I have been happy. I have been loved. I am still loved, I know that’s true, in spite of the distance between us, in spite of the separation.’ She leaves behind a husband and two dearly beloved little girls. As well as an unfinished novel, Suite Francaise.”

With these concluding sentences of the prologue, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt summarize Irene Nemirovsky’s life in her own words. While she enjoyed immense success during her lifetime, today Nemirovsky is best known for her tragic death and the incomplete manuscript she left behind, largely untouched and read by only ten people in fifty-plus years. By narrating Nemirovsky’s arrest, deportation to Auschwitz, and subsequent death, the authors cleverly establish a foundation from which to build their narrative upon. By knowing what tragedy surrounded the end of her life, readers can better appreciate the success and critical acclaim that she possessed during her most prolific literary years. Having established the end of the story, so to speak, the authors then turn their attention to chronologically narrating Nemirovsky’s life for the remainder of the biography.

_The Life of Irene Nemirovsky_’s organization into three parts establishes a strong frame from which to support a woman’s life story which is filled with a myriad of personal blows and professional knockouts. Nemirovsky was a prolific writer, and happily she left behind a veritable treasure trove of primary sources such as handwritten notebooks containing entire manuscripts and outlines for stories, hundreds of letters, and newspaper clippings containing reviews of her work. Philipponnat and Lienhardt pieced these puzzle pieces together to create a portrait of Nemirovsky’s literary processes and personal feelings. It is in brilliant passages such as this that readers gained unparalleled insight into Nemirovsky’s identity as a writer:

I never make a plan. I begin by describing for my own purposes the physical appearance and a full biography of all the characters, even the less important ones. In this way, even before getting down to the actual writing itself, I know my characters perfectly, even, it seems to me, down to the way they speak; I know how they will behave, not just in the book but throughout their lives. When this is done, I begin to write.

The earlier part of the biography focuses upon Nemirovsky’s personal life, childhood, and how the dark wave of history charted her life on a course that no one foresaw, but the majority of the narrative contextualizes Nemirovsky’s literary life. All autobiographical references become ancillary to the primary plot chronicling her writing process, and the success she received by way of sales and critical reception. Even her confused relationship with her national and religious identity—though by heritage Jewish and Ukrainian—Nemirovsky considered herself French first and foremost, are tangential to the prolonged analyses of Nemirovsky’s short stories and novels. The problem in these chapters is that an overabundance of literary criticism bogs down an otherwise seamless narrative, and is lost upon those not intimately associated with the stories and novels that Philipponnat and Lienhardt chose to highlight; some are not even available in English, such as an intriguing-sounding novel The Wine of Solitude, whose themes and critical reception dominate a portion of this biography.

The last few chapters will contain themes and historical narrative that most readers familiar with Suite Francaise will recognize: the German invasion of France in 1940, the subsequent flight of thousands of French citizens in June of the same year, and subsequently Nemirovsky’s inspiration to pen what she referred to as her magnum opus, and we know as Suite Francaise. Planned in three parts, only two were completed at the time of her arrest and deportation in July 1942. She knew it was coming. The Life of Irene Nemirovsky shines and moves in its final pages with such passages:

On 11th July, Irene Nemirovsky walked up to the Male woods to enjoy the last remaining pleasures that were not forbidden to her. She was feeling cheerful, too cheerful, as if all her anxiety had ebbed back to distant shores. It was a very peaceful, almost miraculous morning . . . These were her last words as a writer. “I’ve written a great deal lately [referring to Suite Francaise] I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.”

Two days later Irene Nemirovsky was arrested and deported. Several months later her husband, Michel was arrested and led off to Le Creusot prison prior to his deportation to Drancy. His final words to his and Irene’s daughters: “Never part from this suitcase for it contains your mother’s manuscript.”

Despite several chapters heavy in literary criticism, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is an accomplished work possessing keen insightfulness into the life and literature of an author famous and bestselling in France in her day, but in light of the war and her Jewish heritage, was largely forgotten by the literary world, until earlier this century. Nemirovsky’s body of work, as well as her life, deserves to be recognized, respected, and understood once again. So spoke a literary critic in 1946, “Irene Nemirovsky does not leave her admirers empty-handed. She worked up to the last moment. Her books do not stop with her. Some precious manuscripts, together with her published work, will reinforce her literary survival.” Thankfully, due to the diligence and creativity of these two authors, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky will contribute to her literary survival both in America, and abroad.

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on the reissue of Suzanne Jill Levine’s classic The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.

This book has had a huge impact on translators ever since it was first published, and there was even a huge celebration of Jill at the last ALTA conference to honor the republication of her book.

I totally love Jill and am a huge fan of all of her translations, especially the Puig books and Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. And I also love what she’s done for Penguin Classics with the special five-volume Borges set. (Which we will review at some point—I promise.) Additionally, the Reading the World podcast Erica Mena and I did with her was one of the best to date. (You can subscribe to the RTW Podcast via iTunes, or listen to it at the link above.)

Jessica has become one of our regular reviewers. As a bit of background info, she studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review and W. W. Norton & Company. Jessica currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

“Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.”

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

Click here to read the full piece.

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

The author, Suzanne Jill Levine, is a Spanish professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, as well as a renowned translator of Latin American fiction’s powerhouses such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig. In addition to The Subversive Scribe and several scholarly publications, she’s also published a biography: Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions.

When lovingly outlining just how she transferred her passion for the Spanish language into a lifelong odyssey as a translator, specifically of Latin American (male) authors, she says:

Scientists could come up with new inventions; astronauts could set foot on new planets; the only frontier adventure available to the translator seemed to be the crossing of language and cultural barriers, stepping through the Looking Glass to see what a presumably untranslatable Spanish text would look like on the other side, in English. I was challenged thus (and perhaps doomed to the fate of Borges’s pathetic Pierre Menard or Flaubert’s bumbling Bouvard and Pecuchet) by these Latin American fictions.

To most, the word “subversive” has political connotations, and draws readers a mental image along the lines of Solzhenitsyn toiling away in the gulag. Yet in the case of Levine’s narrative, she poetically states that the act of translation is in itself a subversive act:

A translation will never be the text it imitates, which was written in another language, but it can be a version lying dormant and, like Frankenstein (to use an Infantesque metaphor), animated by a mad translator, a text illuminated and motivated by the original, realized in its next life, in translation.

Levine’s illuminating and crisp prose is at its height when describing her philosophical approaches to translation, and when sharing her personal experiences with Latin America’s literary crème de la crème. However, the narrative flow becomes a bit bogged down when the author launches into the more specific nuances of Spanish grammar and linguistics. Organized in four parts, The Subversive Scribe outlines the linguistic trials and tribulations of titles, names, and even specific cultural sexual innuendos for a greater part of the book than I personally would have preferred. Because I’m not fluent in a second language and haven’t translated literature myself (and lack much experience with Latin American literature), much of these sections that were heavy on literary criticism and linguistics were lost on me. The Subversive Scribe sings out when Levine focuses more on her personal relationship with authors and her experiences translating, but merely hums when she delves deep into the grammatical grit. That said, I get the sense that The Subversive Scribe would be perfect for someone who is fluent in a second language, and possesses their own firsthand experience translating literature.

Ultimately, The Subversive Scribe “is meant to jolt the reader out of a comfortable (or uncomfortable) view of translation as secondary, as faint shadows of primary, vivid but lost, originals . . . to dramatize this I have purposely focused on writers and writing that speak explicitly of the original’s self-betrayal . . .Readers also need to understand how Latin American writing is transmitted to them, and how differences and similarities between cultures and languages affect what is finally transmitted. Knowing the other and how we receive or hear the other is a fundamental step toward knowing ourselves.” Indeed it is.

23 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s The Bridge of the Golden Horn, which is translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Serpent’s Tail.

Ozdamar was born in Turkey and moved to Berlin because of her interest in German theater. She’s the author of several plays and was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from her first novel.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review and W. W. Norton & Company. Jessica currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University. She’s also working on a review of Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe . . . .

Here’s an excerpt from her review of The Bridge of the Golden Horn:

“Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.” When these words from John Berger’s introduction are applied to this moving novel by Turkish playwright and actress Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, they ring inordinately true. The Bridge of the Golden Horn opens with the most well-known plotline: Once upon a time there was a young girl who sought more out of life than she currently possessed. So she left home, traveled to a faraway land, and along the way encountered a myriad of obstacles, found herself in both silly and impossible situations, all of which taught her valuable lessons by the novel’s conclusion. The end. Yet in the case of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, this familiar narrative device takes the reader along on a surprising and wholly satisfying journey with a quirky and complicated narrator. This unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, and so she forsakes her native Istanbul for Berlin—lying about her age in order to obtain a job as a migrant worker in a factory—in the hopes that she’ll accumulate enough money to send herself to drama school. As is usually the case in such stories, all does not go according to plan, and the novel chronicles the four year span—beginning in 1966—during which the heroine acquaints herself with love, sex, communism, and foreign languages. So she says herself: “I wanted to learn German, and then rid myself of my diamond in order to become a good actress. Here [Istanbul] I would have to come home every evening and look in my parents’ eyes. Not in Germany.”

Written in a fluid stream-of-consciousness style, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s semi-autobiographical novel propels the reader through the narrative with its long chapters and quick pacing; it feels like you’re straddling a cantering horse, powerless to slow down. The novel’s tone forces the reader to feel what the narrator feels at any given moment, whether it be about her family, home, sexuality, politics, or theatrical aspirations. With its clipped and direct prose, the narrative pulls you in without being sentimental or melancholy: “Every cigarette we smoked that night showed us that we had made a mistake. We had run away from the herd and now we wept for the herd. This was Berlin. This Berlin had not existed for us yet. We had our hossel [sic], and the hossel was not Berlin.”

Click here to read the full review.

23 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.” When these words from John Berger’s introduction are applied to this moving novel by Turkish playwright and actress Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, they ring inordinately true. The Bridge of the Golden Horn opens with the most well-known plotline: Once upon a time there was a young girl who sought more out of life than she currently possessed. So she left home, traveled to a faraway land, and along the way encountered a myriad of obstacles, found herself in both silly and impossible situations, all of which taught her valuable lessons by the novel’s conclusion. The end. Yet in the case of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, this familiar narrative device takes the reader along on a surprising and wholly satisfying journey with a quirky and complicated narrator. This unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, and so she forsakes her native Istanbul for Berlin—lying about her age in order to obtain a job as a migrant worker in a factory—in the hopes that she’ll accumulate enough money to send herself to drama school. As is usually the case in such stories, all does not go according to plan, and the novel chronicles the four year span—beginning in 1966—during which the heroine acquaints herself with love, sex, communism, and foreign languages. So she says herself: “I wanted to learn German, and then rid myself of my diamond in order to become a good actress. Here [Istanbul] I would have to come home every evening and look in my parents’ eyes. Not in Germany.”

Written in a fluid stream-of-consciousness style, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s semi-autobiographical novel propels the reader through the narrative with its long chapters and quick pacing; it feels like you’re straddling a cantering horse, powerless to slow down. The novel’s tone forces the reader to feel what the narrator feels at any given moment, whether it be about her family, home, sexuality, politics, or theatrical aspirations. With its clipped and direct prose, the narrative pulls you in without being sentimental or melancholy: “Every cigarette we smoked that night showed us that we had made a mistake. We had run away from the herd and now we wept for the herd. This was Berlin. This Berlin had not existed for us yet. We had our hossel [sic], and the hossel was not Berlin.”

While Ozdamar’s lyrical writing technique contains shades of Postmodernists who have especially favored a stream of consciousness style (such as Joyce and Woolf), her writing is wholly her own:

Berlin had been like a street to me. As a child I had stayed in the street until midnight, in Berlin, I had found my street again. From Berlin I had returned to my parents’ house, but now it was like a hotel, I wanted to go back on the street again. On the ship the men took the newspapers down from their faces and looked at me. Every evening a shipful of people would come to see me on the stage as an actress. The men would fall in love with me. I suddenly realized that I was very curious about what these men who would fall in love with me would look like. I wanted to die onstage like Moliere, in the middle of the set. I saw myself onstage, other actors carried me in their arms, I bled from my mouth, died and left behind no children who had to weep after my death. The ship was just in the middle between Asian and European Istanbul. The actress came out of my body, she pushed a man and child in front of her and threw them into the Sea of Marmara. Then she came back and entered me again. When the ship reached the Asian side, I knew that I never ever wanted to get married. I could hardly wait to get home. Before I got on the bus, I called my mother. ‘I don’t want to marry, I want to go to drama school.’

In addition to being the author of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar has also written plays, and is a trained actress. With this experience, Ozdamar has clearly gained a masterful understanding of the nuances of language, and sheutilizes literary devices found in playwriting to push the novel’s plot towards its conclusion, a technique that works brilliantly throughout the entire novel.

At its core, though, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a modern-day fairy tale. While few would consider 1966 “long ago”, or Istanbul and Berlin “a far away land” (in the traditional fairy-tale sense; both are pretty far away from where I sit in Phoenix), the novel contains a colorful cast of characters, heartbreaking and hilarious events, a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood, and all of this takes place in a dramatically shifting modern world – a densely wooded forest of life, iconic of a fairy tale. In his introduction, John Berger states, “perhaps story-tellers have always been listened to because they fill a lack.” Luckily for readers, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s profound, illuminating, and ultimately lovely novel, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a powerful story that can fill in for whatever may be lacking.

4 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know we’ve been pretty quiet on the book reviewing front (but soon—I really want to recommend the new Brandao book . . .), but at long last, we’ve added a piece on The Wall in My Head to our Review section.

I would be tempted to apologize for the self-promotional nature of posting a review of one of our own books (god knows why, that’s exactly how other publishers use their blogs), but this book came into existence thanks to Alane Mason, Rohan Kamicheril, Sal Robinson, Gemma Bentley, and the wonderful people at Words Without Borders. They deserve a ton of credit—even more than can be delivered in this glowing review.

As a sidenote, we are having a special event for this book next Tuesday at Idlewild Books in New York City. Event starts at 6pm and features Dorota Maslowska (Poland), the author of Snow White and Russian Red, and winner of the Nike prize; Dan Sociu(Romania), the author of Urbancholia; Masha Gessen (Russia), author of Ester and Ruzya: How my Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace; and Kathrin Aehnlich (Germany), author of Alle Sterben, auch Die Loeffelstoere. The event will be moderated by Eliot Borenstein, Chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, and the author of Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture.

But on with the review . . . This was written by Jessica LeTourneur, who is from Chicago, attended NYU’s Publishing Institute in 2005, has worked as a journalist, a librarian, an indie bookstore clerk, and once upon a time, at The Missouri Review and W. W. Norton & Company, and currently is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her piece:

I was born in the final decade of communism’s flailing grasp on the Eastern Bloc, and so what I know of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism has long been relegated to what I learned from middle school textbooks, and teachers who had to explain to us why those maps we were so diligently studying were made obsolete overnight. The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain has aided in filling in that gap in my education through its poignant words and images that have left an indelible impression upon me long after I turned the last page. For me, the globe I keep on top of my bookcase from the early 1980s is a quirky relic, but for those whose contributions make up this extraordinary book, those lines and colors that have been redrawn in the past two decades were once ‘home’.

With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall coming up—it takes place next week on November 9th—this tremendous, and at times wrenching compilation of stories and images is a truly revelatory experience for any reader, no matter what country or decade they were born into.

This book is also a prime example of the quality anthologies that Words Without Borders has put out into the marketplace over the past several years. (Other publications include Literature from the Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations, New Press, September 2006, and Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers, Anchor Books, March 2007).

The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain is an exceptional anthology that is jointly published by Words Without Borders and Open Letter Books. It contains stories written by the greats whose names are immediately recognizable—Milan Kundera, Vladimir Sorokin, Peter Esterhazy, as well as those who may be lesser-known in the United States (for now), but are nonetheless astonishingly talented writers and artists.

Click here for the full review.

4 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I was born in the final decade of communism’s flailing grasp on the Eastern Bloc, and so what I know of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism has long been relegated to what I learned from middle school textbooks, and teachers who had to explain to us why those maps we were so diligently studying were made obsolete overnight. The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain has aided in filling in that gap in my education through its poignant words and images that have left an indelible impression upon me long after I turned the last page. For me, the globe I keep on top of my bookcase from the early 1980s is a quirky relic, but for those whose contributions make up this extraordinary book, those lines and colors that have been redrawn in the past two decades were once ‘home’.

With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall coming up—it takes place next week on November 9th—this tremendous, and at times wrenching compilation of stories and images is a truly revelatory experience for any reader, no matter what country or decade they were born into.

This book is also a prime example of the quality anthologies that Words Without Borders has put out into the marketplace over the past several years. (Other publications include Literature from the Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations, New Press, September 2006, and Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers, Anchor Books, March 2007).

The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain is an exceptional anthology that is jointly published by Words Without Borders and Open Letter Books. It contains stories written by the greats whose names are immediately recognizable—Milan Kundera, Vladimir Sorokin, Peter Esterhazy, as well as those who may be lesser-known in the United States (for now), but are nonetheless astonishingly talented writers and artists.

The strength of the collection lies in its diversity—writers from all corners of Eastern Europe share their wide-ranging experiences in varying narrative form—from the epistolary in Mihaly Kornis’s “Petition” to Eugen Jebeleanu’s “Poems from Secret Weapon_”, _The Wall in My Head features a unique collection of fiction, nonfiction, photos, and images of historical documents that all together contribute to a distinctive book that sheds light on what life was, and has been for several generations of writers, activists, and artists who witnessed the collapse of Communism first-hand.

Wladimir Kaminer’s “Paris Lost” illustrates both the ridiculousness as well as the paranoia that gripped communist countries to such an extent that Kazakhstan found itself constructing its own fake Paris and London, only to later tear it down when the government’s fear that the people would discover the truth precipitated the need. In “Moving House” by Pawel Huelle a dining table comes between a marriage, until the day when its legs are (literally) cut down from underneath it:

My father, so handy at repairs, couldn’t fix Mr. Polaske’s table, or rather, couldn’t fix its uneven legs. After each cut, it would turn out that one of the legs was a little shorter than the others. Possessed by the fury of perfection, or maybe the German methodicalness, my father refused to admit defeat: he shortened and shortened the legs, until at last an extraordinary sight presented itself. On the floor, beside heaps of sawn-off bits of wood and a sea of sawdust, lay the top of Mr. Polaske’s table, legless, like a great brown shield. My mother’s eyes glittered with emotion, my father’s look was black as thunder, but nothing could stop him from finishing what he’d begun. The snarling saw began to rip into the tabletop. My father puffed and panted, and my mother held her breath, until at long last she cried: “Well, finally!”

The Wall wasn’t just an architectural structure separating the East from the West. Its physical presence was a catalyst for the symbolic and mental state that also divided granddaughters from grandmothers (“My Grandmother the Censor”), brothers from sisters, (“Brother and Sister”), as well as parting lovers (“Nabokov in Brasov”). While some of the writers in The Wall in My Head embrace the past and pursue their desire to peel back the layers of their history and pasts, others clearly demarcate the wall in their head as a place where they are either unable, or unwilling to remember communism’s lingering legacy. Says Dorota Maslowska in “Faraway, So Gross”:

Do I remember Communism? But I have to remember something, right? Drag some nugget of the swirling muck of memory, strip it of superfluous detail, snap a shot of the heroes’ faces and let them march across the table, funny or forlorn, in rain slickers and stupid old boots that say “Relax” on their tags, with mesh shopping bags hanging low from the greenish, budding potatoes rumbling around inside. . . . In fact, I don’t remember anything in particular from that time, barely any event at all, barely any feeling, just this sort of grayness and nausea raised to the highest degree, such that it was almost the idea of grayness. . . . Memory is shush, a muddy puddle in which the little ships of things now sink, now surface triumphantly. I remember Communism exclusively as a style and an aesthetic category.

While there certainly hasn’t been a shortage of weighty academic tomes, dissertations, and other narratives analyzing communism and its aftereffects in the two decades since the Wall came down, The Wall in My Head offers the reader a remarkably one-of-a-kind reading experience through its variety and superiority in content, writers, and prose. Words Without Borders and Open Letter Books have really hit the mark with this brilliant collection.

....
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