6 September 13 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter, one of the ten judges for the Best Translated Book Awards and curator of Salonica, gives her thoughts on some of the books she’s read so far this year.

School is back in swing, a war with Syria looms and the new iPhone 5s is about to take over the world. Yet, let’s not forget the simple joys in life. Like books. More specifically, books in translation. Even more specifically than that, this year’s books in translation. As we begin the slow rev to the Best Translated Book Awards short list, the judges have decided to voice their comments, appraisals, frustrations, and declarations of love for the fiction entries along the way. As a judge, I can attest to the fact that even though I know a book may not be the strongest contender for the long or short list, I still can fall madly, deeply and begrudgingly in intellectual lust with it.

This brings me to my impressions of a few of the entries I’ve read so far that have made me think, intrigued me or challenged me to understand why the novel is so compelling even though the main character thoroughly disgusts me. The first novel I want to recommend is Marc Auge’s No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction.

Ethnofiction blends truth and fiction (doesn’t all fiction?) that asks the reader to not necessarily identify with the main characters in the novel, but rather to reflect on the conditions in which she exists. This is a genre that began in film and is making it’s way into the literary vernacular, especially in France and England. Also known as docufiction or ethnography, it aims to take the viewer or reader into the world of a marginalized part of society and present that reality through the eyes of a main character. In Auge’s slim novel,translated by Chris Turner, he chooses to focus on homelessness through the life of the main character, Henri. Divorce, retired and struggling financially besides receiving a small pension, he sells all his belongings, gives up his studio apartment and moves into his Mercedes(pretty posh for a homeless guy).

Through diary entries, we learn of his nomadic life around his neighborhood: where he moves in car to avoid tickets, the cafe he visits to sit during the day and evening, and his homeless colleague who lives on the pavement near his parking space. As he gradually disengages from society and responsibility, the loneliness and alienation from mainstream society become contrastingly overwhelming but comfortable. At the end of the novel, he is forced to make a choice about whether he will decide to participate in society as he once had or to continue as homeless. What makes this so engaging is that even though we are drawn into the desperation of homelessness and our dismissal of the homeless, we still identify with the main character because it so well written.

I really enjoyed this book because as quick it was to read, Henri stuck with as well as the questions Auge raised. As far as the narrator, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another favorite of mine, The Waitress Was New about a lonely unemployed bartender on the outskirts of Paris. The same honest and touching voice. It also had elements of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a memoir, but began as a piece of investigative reporting and doesn’t feel to far off from ethnofiction.

The second novel I’d recommend is another short one, but no less intriguing. Scissors by Stephane Michaka is actually almost three times as long as No Fixed Abode, but reads just as quickly.

Michaka recreates the last ten years of Raymond Carver’s life through alternating voices – Douglas, his editor (okay, Gordon Lish), Marianne, his ex-wife and Joanne, his new poetess-lover and his own. There are fictionalized excerpts of Carver stories that add to the believability of this imagined decade. The fraught relationship between Douglas and Ray eventually leads to a power struggle between who is actually responsible for Carver’s success. No doubt they are inextricable. What makes this books so strong is that essentially Michaka gets to the kernel of the creative process from beginning to end including the pitfalls of alcoholism, passivity, ego and the trials of those who support a creative personality. The book feels very American because the subject is Carver whose stamp on the minimalist style pushed it to the front of acceptable literary styles. This American feel is due equally to the writer and the translator, John Cullen. Carver, like any artist American or not, struggled and at the end we see it not as Raymond Carver struggling, but the possible battles that lie in waiting for any creative pursuit.

The last novel is from a new ebook publisher that I’m really excited about, Frisch and Co.. Among other their new titles is Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated by Megan McDowell, a brutal, downbeat novel full of weed, violence, carcasses and squid.

Part me of thinks, “I know, don’t ask,” but the other part of me(I guess it’s the sick part) couldn’t put down this stoner tale of criminality. Cetarti is a pot-smoking loser nearing forty, who is unemployed and running out of money. And like it always does, trouble starts with a phone call. He finds out that his mother and older brother were shot by her married boyfriend who then shot himself. He drives from Cordoba to Lapachito where the remains of his mother and brother are and is met by Duarte, a smarmy, aged, pot-smoking friend of Molina, Cetarti’s mother’s lover. Duarte offers a deal to Cetarti to collect on insurance. Cetarti is quick to agree since he has no emotional attachment to his mother or brother and is in need of money. A bit later we are introduced to a second narrator, Danielito, the son of Molina’s ex-wife. Danielito is young and also a heavy duty pot-smoker. He is the minion of Duarte who turns out to be a violent kidnapper. Through a weed haze, we learn of each character’s fascinations including giant squid, dancing elephants, disgusting fetish porn and model airplanes. Despite all that, I was drawn in by the duality of each character and bizarre loyalties each one rationalizes. Even though it’s difficult to believe anything gets done with all the 420 going on, there is a streamlined plot that pushes this forward in a really powerful way.

It’s about time I return to more entries for this year’s award, but it’s reading very well so far. Don’t just take my word for it, grab one the titles above and see for yourself. Stay tuned for posts from all our judges!

11 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brian Libgober on Michael Wallner’s The Russian Affair, which John Cullen translated from German and is available from Nan A. Talese Books.

Here is part of his review:

Michael Wallner’s second novel opens with its female protagonist watching as a bearded man goes for a swim in the river. It is twenty degrees below zero and windy. Welcome to 1960’s Moskva (not Moscow), a place where national elites eat zakuski instead of hors d’oeuvres and drive chaiki instead of limos.

Atmosphere is no doubt one of The Russian Affair’s strongest suits. The book presents an account of everyday life during the Brezhnev era that is both knowledgeable and authentic. Not all of it will come as a surprise to Western readers. The use of newspaper instead of toilet paper, the endless lines, the resentment toward elite privilege – these were all details of daily life in communist Russia that were well-reported in the West. Wallner references these facts early on in the book (one imagines that he would have to), but he doesn’t stop there. He uncovers an astounding variety of day-in-the-life minutiae that will be surprising and fascinating to most. He describes the struggle for necessities like screws and washers, the angling for a grave within the Moscow city limits, the ability of any government vehicle to supersede traffic law, the bath houses, the almost religious importance society invested poetry, etc. The details roll on and on without becoming dull. One could almost believe that the German screenwriter/author had grown up there.

Click here to read the entire review.

11 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Michael Wallner’s second novel opens with its female protagonist watching as a bearded man goes for a swim in the river. It is twenty degrees below zero and windy. Welcome to 1960’s Moskva (not Moscow), a place where national elites eat zakuski instead of hors d’oeuvres and drive chaiki instead of limos.

Atmosphere is no doubt one of The Russian Affair’s strongest suits. The book presents an account of everyday life during the Brezhnev era that is both knowledgeable and authentic. Not all of it will come as a surprise to Western readers. The use of newspaper instead of toilet paper, the endless lines, the resentment toward elite privilege – these were all details of daily life in communist Russia that were well-reported in the West. Wallner references these facts early on in the book (one imagines that he would have to), but he doesn’t stop there. He uncovers an astounding variety of day-in-the-life minutiae that will be surprising and fascinating to most. He describes the struggle for necessities like screws and washers, the angling for a grave within the Moscow city limits, the ability of any government vehicle to supersede traffic law, the bath houses, the almost religious importance society invested poetry, etc. The details roll on and on without becoming dull. One could almost believe that the German screenwriter/author had grown up there.

Even though Wallner’s story is best classified as an erotic thriller, the book is clearly in dialogue with Anna Karenina. His female lead, Anna, was named by her father, a state-sponsored poet, whose oeuvre bears a resemblance to the writings of Isaac Babel. Unlike Tolstoy’s Karenina, Wallner’s Anna is both a realist and a pragmatist. A married woman with proletarian concerns, her affair has little to do with either sex or love. It has a lot more to do with getting good health care for her child and escaping the drudgery of her practical marriage. The tension driving the novel does not come primarily from the psychological tension in Anna’s head over her affair, but rather from the high-stakes political intrigue into which she has been thrust. The differences between The Russian Affair and Anna Karenina provoke reflection on the eccentricities of the era, as well as on our own book-publishing climate.

John Cullen’s translation reads briskly. Its prose is rich in detail, but is not overly ornate:

Gray-brown buildings with missing plaster, a collapsing barbed wire fence, a street full of potholes, the rusting skeleton of a cannibalized tractor at the side of the road. Across the street a storefront whose sign was missing so many letters that the word bakery could barely be deciphered. Anna’s heart sank; in the middle of the street, she turned around in a circle. Silence reigned, but somewhere far off, a generator was running. The air smelled like fire. (The Russian Affair, 386)

Wallner’s second novel is a solid follow-up to his debut, April in Paris, and a strong entry to the erotic-thriller market. He continues to hone his social-history intensive style, which brings an intellectual edge unique to his preferred genre.

1 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erika Howard on Manuel de Lope’s The Wrong Blood, which was translated from the Spanish by John Cullen and available from Other Press.

Manuel de Lope has published fourteen books in his native Spain, but this is the first of his works to be translated into English. Based on the reviews of The Wrong Blood that I’ve read, hopefully this won’t be his last. Even the NY Times gave it (and translator John Cullen) some love in this past Sunday’s Book Review:

This absorbing novel — the first from the distinguished Spanish author to be translated into English — is full of mild sensations. Mild humor (bacalao soaked for dinner in the toilet tank) gives way to mild horror (a woman bends over another’s baby with “the posture of certain all-consuming insects”), which in turn yields to mild philosophizing (on the “admiration that denizens of the rural world feel for folding things”). At times, the mildness turns to provocation, as when the main character, a simple yet baffling woman named María Antonia Etxarri, watches a troop of soldiers and has “a feeling that one of those soldiers, if not more than one, was going to rape her.” The placidity with which she faces this prospect is galvanic. But de Lope’s languid sentences, artfully translated by John Cullen, continue to unfurl, and you find yourself sinking back into the narrative as if it were quicksand.

Erika Howard is interning with Open Letter this semester, and this is her first book review . . . Here’s how it opens:

When you imagine a typical “war novel,” what do you think of? Most people would answer bloody battlefields and brother-against-brother dramatics, lack of supplies and bleak outlooks. However, The Wrong Blood is undeniably a novel that is centered around war, and yet these things are only minimally addressed. Instead, de Lope’s novel focuses on the impact of war on civilians—those not directly engaged in fighting, or (generally) in any of the more violent aspects of it, but affected nonetheless. Specifically, it focuses on two women, and how their lives were changed and intertwined through a course of events set in motion by the war.

One of these women is Isabel Cruces, an upper-class woman who marries Captain Julen Herráiz. Her husband is sent off to war, and she is widowed not long after. Her tragedy is directly connected to Maria Antonia Extarri, the daughter of a former inn keeper, who is abandoned as a teenager when her parents flee the war and their home. Maria is raped when soldiers take refuge at her family’s inn, and, through a series of events (both emotional and physical), she eventually ends up as a maid to Isabel. From the beginning, there is an acknowledgement of an odd bond between the two women, but no explanation as to why for the better part of the book. Manuel de Lope does manage to keep it in the front of the reader’s mind, however, referencing it off and on, clearly but without overdoing it, as in this passage . . .

To read that passage and the rest of the review, simply click here.

1 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When you imagine a typical “war novel,” what do you think of? Most people would answer bloody battlefields and brother-against-brother dramatics, lack of supplies and bleak outlooks. However, The Wrong Blood is undeniably a novel that is centered around war, and yet these things are only minimally addressed. Instead, de Lope’s novel focuses on the impact of war on civilians—those not directly engaged in fighting, or (generally) in any of the more violent aspects of it, but affected nonetheless. Specifically, it focuses on two women, and how their lives were changed and intertwined through a course of events set in motion by the war.

One of these women is Isabel Cruces, an upper-class woman who marries Captain Julen Herráiz. Her husband is sent off to war, and she is widowed not long after. Her tragedy is directly connected to Maria Antonia Extarri, the daughter of a former inn keeper, who is abandoned as a teenager when her parents flee the war and their home. Maria is raped when soldiers take refuge at her family’s inn, and, through a series of events (both emotional and physical), she eventually ends up as a maid to Isabel. From the beginning, there is an acknowledgement of an odd bond between the two women, but no explanation as to why for the better part of the book. Manuel de Lope does manage to keep it in the front of the reader’s mind, however, referencing it off and on, clearly but without overdoing it, as in this passage:

However, anyone familiar with the two locales—that is, the Extarri inn at the crossroads and the Las Cruces villa in Hondarribia—could have told that one of the two had pervaded the other through the subtle introduction of symbols and emblems that assuredly were not limited to the buffalo head and the china chamber pot. Knowing eyes would have detected Maria Antonia’s influence in the house after the Senora’s death and the expropriation and destruction of the inn. Thus her universe now extended beyond the kitchen, where she spent so much of her time, and her room, which had always been the servant’s quarters.

The story of these two women is told in drips and drabbles, more in flashback and hints dropped by the crippled doctor who lives next door, probably the only one (or at the very least, one of the few living) who knows the secret that bonds Maria and Isabel. Thus the connections that are intricately laid can be difficult to trace unless you stop and focus on them. Perhaps this is a side effect of a few too many connections; perhaps it’s the simple fact that some of these connections were announced fairly early in the novel. Either way, by the end of the story it takes a moment to recall exactly why everything was connected.

However, even with the momentary confusion that happens once or twice, the good outweighs the bad. Manuel de Lope constructs a story about war that seems relatable, even though the (very large) majority of readers will never face a scenario like this. The emotions are true, and the setting rarely strays to a far-off battlefield, or really anywhere too difficult for an average reader to imagine. The storyline might be a little far-fetched, a little too coincidental to be believable, but on the whole the novel stays true to itself, and keeps you engaged. The Wrong Blood is definitely worth the time and attention it requires.

15 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, New Directions)

From an interview with superstar translator Susan Bernofsky:

I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.

Sold!

Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (France, Wakefield Press)

Wakefield Press doesn’t receive nearly as much play as it deserves. Marc Lowenthal (translator, publisher, etc.) is producing some fascinatingly strange books in absolutely gorgeous editions. (I highly recommend The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners which is one of the raunchiest, funniest books I’ve ever read. And by raunchy I mean there’s some really sick shit in there.) And Perec! One of the all time bests. And this small book is perfectly Perec-ian: for three days he records everything he sees as part of a “quest of the ‘infraordinary’: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’”

Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Clockroot)

No matter what, I’d include this book on the list simply because I think Karen Emmerich is amazing and Clockroot extremely daring and interesting. But check this quote:

“God was tired . . . He looked down at his earth and what it had become . . . His people had betrayed him . . . Thus it was that he decided to send a new god to earth, a god people would recognize and worship from the start—a god made in their image, a god they deserved . . . He clutched his stomach, leaned over the earth, and vomited.”

Yep. And here’s an excerpt from Clockroot, and one from Words Without Borders.

The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

This is the second Schmitt book to come out from Europa — the other being The Most Beautiful Book in the World — and both story collections sound pretty intriguing. But the real reason I wanted to mention this book is because it is fourth translation of Alison Anderson’s coming out this year. She’s like the C.C. Sebathia of literary translation!

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco, New Directions)

This sounds very cool. It’s described as a “sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism.” It also has a great cover, a brilliant quote from Elias Khoury (“We normally speak of writing as an adventure, but Kilito dares his reader to travel with him, on a quest to override the boundaries between reality and fiction, between literary criticism and storytelling”), and Creswell won a PEN Translation Award for this.

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

With Saramago passing away just a few weeks ago, it’s a good time to look over his career. I haven’t read many of the recent titles, but back in the day, I really liked Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, Blindness, and Balthasar and Blimunda, which is the book The Elephant’s Journey most calls to mind.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (Spain, Other Press)

A couple months back, I met with some of the editors at Other Press, and they all raved about this book. Manuel de Lope has a solid reputation in Spain, and this is his first book to be published in English. All I’ve been able to read so far is the opening sentence, but this (along with the jacket copy and Katie’s recommendation) has me pretty intrigued:

It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway.

....
The Madmen of Benghazi
The Madmen of Benghazi by Gerard de Villiers
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .

Read More >

The Four Corners of Palermo
The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza
Reviewed by Patience Haggin

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .

Read More >

Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

Read More >

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >