5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013. Click here for Part I.

For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.

The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.

Another feature of the text that is present, but kept very much in the background in the original text, is its meditation on translation. The 1998 Encyclopedia concludes with the following line:

Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible) Yo.

The repetition already indicates that this is translation of a sort; in the first iteration, it is a line by Whitman; in the second, the line is claimed by the narrator, recontextualized into his own life experience. The fact that both iterations are in Spanish disguises the element of translation. A translator into Chinese or Russian could do the same, repeating the line twice in its Chinese or Russian version. But the translator into Whitman’s own language doesn’t have that option. What was more, this was a chance to conclude the novel with a final reminder of its Spanishness by offering the narrator’s Spanish version of Whitman as a translation.

Full of life now, compact, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible.) Me.

This solution struck me as perfect, but entrained a whole set of consequences. If the imperative of alphabetical order and the need to re-emphasize the original language was requiring me to position a source text alongside its translation here and in many of the headwords such as Pasarela, (which in my translation is followed by the English Catwalk in parentheses), the tacit theme of translation which those solutions made explicit had to become more explicit throughout—by positioning the source texts of all the Encyclopedia’s myriad citations alongside their translation into English. For if this had to be done with translations between English and Spanish (one of the less important language pairings within the polyglossia of this text), then it had to be done with all the other languages as well. When I first discussed this option with José, he resisted it, and with good reason. He worried that marking the text’s polyglossia so strongly, including citations in seven different languages, would alienate potential Anglophone readers, striking them as off-puttingly pretentious or academic. He was also laudably concerned that the incorporation of so many languages would appear to constitute a claim to fluency in all of them—a claim that neither he nor I could honestly make. He didn’t want to seem like a fraud.

The first of his objections would quite likely have been valid if this translation had been published at the same time or within a year or two of the original 1998 text. However, my sense is that over the course of the past two decades and especially in the past five years, multilingualism has acquired a marked cachet in the Anglophone urban literary sphere that is likely to take interest in this kind of novel. For examples, I’ll point out the increased use of foreign language dialogue with subtitles in Hollywood blockbuster films (of which the recent films by Quentin Tarrantino that include the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz are an instance), the rise of a foodie culture with its highly polyglot vocabulary, the increased popularity of yoga with its constant use of Sanskrit, the surging success of web-based language learning sites such as Rosetta Stone, LiveMocha, Babbel. For those readers of the Encyclopedia with some understanding of one or more of its source languages, their incorporation into the translation could only enhance the experience of the novel. And for those who understand only the English, the visible presence of those alien words on the page would constitute a kind of pictorial illustration of the confrontation with a foreign system of meaning that is the book’s fundamental subject matter.

To enhance this sense of “foreign language as illustration” I wanted to include as little transliteration as possible, but use original scripts for all source texts. This meant, first and foremost, offering Russian words and passages in Cyrillic, and including transliteration only when the words’ sound value could add some dimension of meaning or rhythm to the visual impact of the Cyrillic letters. I quickly realized there was an additional feature of the text that motivated my sense that this was necessary. The Encyclopedia includes many reflections on recent innovations in printing technology—recent in the mid-90s—such as the scanner, the e-book, and advances in word-processing technology that were eliminating the distinction between manuscript and published text. In the two decades following that first publication, those advances have made it as easy to include the Cyrillic alphabet in a publication as it is to change a text’s font on a computer screen. Low-tech, old-fashioned transliteration would have belied the novel’s own claim to expertise in the cutting edge of printing technology.

This left me with a big headache. For the logic that dictated the inclusion of the Cyrillic, which José could supply, dictated the inclusion of the original Japanese and Hebrew texts in their respective writing systems as well, and that was a far more daunting challenge in which, fortunately, several friends who speak those languages very generously came to my assistance.

I ultimately persuaded José to go along with this adventure in polyglossia and include all the source texts by reminding him that translations are often published bilingually. Our narrator, I argued, is not claiming to be fluent in seven or more languages. Rather he is fascinated by language and likes to read books in bilingual editions, his eye often straying to the facing page. In other words, for the narrator, too, as for the monolingual Anglophone reader, many of the source languages are little more than pictorial illustrations of the foreign. With José’s permission, I made this explicit in the English version by adding the following phrase, in parenthesis, to a meditation on the unknowable nature of the material world and the closed cycle of cultures that appears under the headword Sea Sirens:

(the unfathomable original, there on the open page, that does not cease to trouble us as we read through its translation)

The English version of the Encyclopedia came out in January, and I must say that so far my the various intentions I’ve mentioned here—to foreground the text’s Spanishness, heighten its polyglossia, and make its meditation on translation more explicit—have been entirely ignored by reviewers and readers. None of the articles I’ve read or the readers I’ve discussed the book with have assessed it in the context of Latin American literature; none have considered what it has to tell us about translation; only one has even alluded (with considerable irritation) to the presence of source texts in various languages and scripts. Instead, the novel has been connected to various contemporary discussions of remix culture and the Internet, it has been compared to Huysmans’s A Rebours, the accuracy of its depiction of Russian life in the 90s has been debated, etc. A translator’s intentions, it turns out, are as limited in their ability to dictate the ways a text will ultimately be read as an author’s are. I have, however, had one satisfying confirmation of certain of them. The most recent issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell and published at almost exactly the same time as the English translation of the Encylopedia, is an astonishing literary romp across a polyglot universe: twelve stories are translated by sixty-one authors into eighteen languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, and Hebrew, all published in their own scripts. I had no idea that this issue of McSweeney’s was in the works as I was making my decisions about the Encyclopedia—though I do recall defending my notion to include source languages with a line from a book review by Adam Thirlwell in which he spoke of the new possibility of a “reckless internationalism” in the English language. Now that I do know about this issue of McSweeney’s, I’m happy to take it as confirmation of my intentions. In the end, I may decide that I intended it that way.

5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013.

Earlier this month I was invited to be on a panel about translation at a Brooklyn bookstore. The announcement promised potential audience members they would “Find out what it takes to make sure the meaning of the words that have moved us to laugh, cry and learn new things are delivered the way the author intended.” In the end, the recent blizzard made the event impossible, but even in the absence of heavy snowfall, I would have found it impossible to explain how to translate words “the way the author intended.” For—and note that I say this in the presence of the author himself and have chosen to talk about authorial intent precisely because he is here and can talk back to me—making sure to convey an author’s intentions is not something a translation, any translation, can do.

Authors themselves can tell you that more often than not whatever it was that they intended when they wrote something was ignored by readers or forgotten and replaced by a different and shifting set of intentions even in their own minds once the piece was published or in the years following its composition. (Mónica de la Torre has a lovely article titled “Unreliable self-translation” in Translation Review 81 which describes how difficult it is for the author herself to divine the author’s intentions when she switches into the role of translator.) In the case we’re discussing here, many of the most prominent features of José Manuel Prieto’s work—the extensive use of citations and intertextual references, the recurrent theme of literary production as mash-up, remix and commentary, and the use of constraints such as the encyclopedia format of the novel we’re here to discuss today—seem, well, intended, to mount a direct challenge to the idea that a book consists merely of what its author intended. Words derive much of their meaning from their context, as Prieto superbly demonstrates in the essay on Mandelstam’s “Epigram Against Stalin” that we circulated in anticipation of today’s conversation, and the intentions of those who enunciate them form only a small part of that context, particularly as the moment of enunciation recedes into the past. Prieto himself is a translator, and his work is informed by a strong sense of the ambiguous and perennially shifting nature of semantic meaning. But not every writer has that sense. A dispute flared up last year between the playwright Edward Albee and his Catalan translator, Joan Sellent, after Albee demanded that Sellent account, in a five-column grid, for “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish [sic], and why the words that were chosen were used.” (For more info on the spat, I refer all of you to this piece from the marvelous blog Translationista where Susan Bernofsky catalogues and comments on the translation news of the moment.)

As I pondered the most challenging problems I confronted when translating Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, the intentions of the author, with whom I was in frequent discussion, were only part of a continuum of factors influencing my choices, factors that also included the internal logic of the text itself—which is clearly distinct from an author’s intentions—the transformations wrought upon that logic by the process of translation into another language, the nearly two decades that have elapsed between the book’s original composition and my translation with all the historical, technological and political transformations those two decades have wrought, and my own personal sense of the literary, political and overall cultural context I was translating the text into and which of its features might speak most strongly to that audience.

The particular feature of the Encyclopedia I’ve chosen to discuss today is its polyglossia. I use the term in homage to the great Russian literary historian and theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work the discipline of translation studies would do well to rediscover. Bakhtin associates what he calls polyglossia with parody as well as with texts that incorporate multiple languages; polyglossia is the opposite of what Bakhtin calls a “sealed off and impermeable monoglossia.” “Only polyglossia,” he writes, “fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language.”

Prieto’s Encyclopedia de una vida en Rusia, first published in Mexico in 1998, and reissued by the Spanish publisher Mondadori in 2004, exhibits a marked degree of polyglossia. The headwords of its seventy-seven entries are in Spanish, Russian, English, Latin and German, all transliterated into the Latin alphabet. The novel includes citations of Spanish translations of texts originally written in all of those languages, and in Hebrew, French and Japanese, as well. In this novel, and to a greater degree than most other contemporary literary texts I can think of, with the exception of Vassilis Alexakis’s marvelous Foreign Words, the extent to which the language in which one chooses to speak is a central component of the meaning of what one says is illustrated again and again. When the narrator first addresses the book’s heroine in a St. Petersburg park, the concision of her reply to his query makes him think that she is “ya pensando también en inglés” (“already thinking, too, in English”). Towards the end of the book, when she tells him, in English, “Well, I’m going to New York, Joseph” he begs her to speak Russian and not to go to New York. Elsewhere, Russian housewives are infuriated by the sound of the narrator conversing in a language that is not Russian as he passes by in the street, and the fact of mastery or non-mastery of the Russian language is a continuing theme. In one of my favorite moments, the narrator is watching a video that has no sound because the person who recorded it may have neglected to engage the sound button. In the entry that, in my translation as well, appears under the headword Pasarela, the narrator comments,

My lips pronounced a single word three or four times, a word that, when I first watched the video, I couldn’t decipher. Until it dawned on me that I was speaking in Russian. Then I understood: “Horosho” “Horosho” “Horosho” (“Good! Perfect!”).

The Encyclopedia is a text that insistently reminds us of something so obvious we very often forget it: one of the primary and most significant semantic components of any utterance is the selection of the language in which it is uttered. The heroine’s selection of English for her reply to the narrator’s first advance says much about who she is and what her ambitions are, just as the fluent mastery of Russian the Spanish-speaking narrator boasts of in the volume’s first entry tells us a great deal about him. And therein lay the first challenge of my translation. To render into English a text that explicitly rejects its character’s use of English, to take out of Spanish a text about Russia that is of particular interest for the very fact of its having been written in Spanish, is inevitably to depart in a dramatic way from the intentions that lay behind that original 1998 book.

A strong feature of the 1998 Encyclopedia is the paucity of allusion to the Spanish-speaking world and literature written in Spanish. The narrator’s tropical home country is barely mentioned, and in the book’s dense tissue of literary referents, only two have any explicitly Hispanic component—an allusion to Borges and the citation of a guaracha that compares a sexy girl to a sea siren. In interviews and articles, Prieto has often stated that Russian literature has had more of an influence on his work than Latin American literature, and he describes his first three novels as his “Russian trilogy.”

Click here to read Part II.

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove Press)

I’m about to give away the game in relation to this novel . . . So if you’re an anti-spoiler sort of person, I recommend skipping this post and simply buying the book and enjoying all the literary games packed within.

Trying to summarize this book is a bit tricky. It’s like a mafia thriller filtered through Nabokov. It’s a dense book with a narrator who is both unreliable and maybe a bit confused, and who is obsessed with Proust. It was also the subject of an incredible conversation Erica Mena and I had with Esther Allen for a forthcoming Reading the World podcast. (That’s a subtle enough plug, right?)

Anyway, the basic set-up of this book is that the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple living in Marabella, Spain to tutor their son. The narrator decides that all the kid needs to do is read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is the book that contains everything from psychology to quantum physics. The world is in there.

It startled, even frightening him when I spoke that way about the Book, this being without fixed age—at first I’d thought that was me, that the Writer might be referring to me, but on an instant’s further reflection I realized the phrase applied rather to the man who had greeted me, Batyk. A man bearing a perfect resemblance to a peon, someone fetched from the depths of the darkest, sootiest oil painting.

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. Didn’t you list the classes you were to give him on my behalf? Spanish, mathematics, geography in Spanish? Hadn’t you also mentioned physics? Didn’t you assure me you were well grounded in physics, extremely (sarcastic here) well grounded in physics, didn’t you agree to cover the entire sixth-grade curriculum and the seventh, as well?

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

Rex is constructed out of a series of “Commentaries” from the narrator to the young boy. Most of these sections focus on telling the story of the boy’s parents and of the narrator’s attempt to figure out what the hell is really going on. (More on that in a second.) Littered throughout these commentaries are references to other books—sometimes Proust, sometimes others. Sometimes these phrases are bolded, sometimes they’re not. In translating the book, Esther Allen created a list of references that she worked from, and Jose Manuel Prieto did the same, resulting in an invaluable “author’s note” at the end that provides an amazing set of references.

It’s through this intricate set of references that the reader has to figure out what’s “going on” with the family that has employed our narrator. Initially he thinks they’re one of the wealthiest families he’s ever met. Although how they got their money is a bit suspicious and unnerving . . . Because they are Russian and living in a mob-heavy community—and because of the enormous diamonds that are just around—he’s initially convinced that he’s working for a couple major players in the mafia . . . But that’s not actually right. It’s actually a bit more complicated and involves fake diamonds (like in Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, which may be more of an ur-text for the novel than In Search of Lost Time), a dangerous scam, and some members of the mob that have recently been released from prison . . .

Rex is one of those novels that benefits from multiple readings. And it really doesn’t matter if you know the “plot” or not. The joy is in all the literary games . . .

17 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex is one of my favorite books so far from 2009, and Esther Allen is one of my favorite translation people. Which is why I’m thrilled that CAT just made available this series of audio clips from a discussion between Prieto and Allen from earlier this year.

20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen and published this month by Grove. This is the second book of Prieto’s that Grove has published—Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire came out a few years ago—and hopefully isn’t the last.

As you can probably tell from my review, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

“I’ve been reading it for year, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer.”

Click here for the full review.

Rex
20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

I’ve been reading it for year, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer.

Proust’s masterpiece is more than just a book (or even “Book”) to J., the young Cuban narrator of this novel. He’s recently been hired by a somewhat mysterious Russian couple living in southern Spain to tutor their son, Petya, and to teach him Spanish. Having bluffed his way into the cushy position (which is desirable if for no other reason than to be close to the boy’s seductive mother), J.‘s plan is to use the Book as the sole teaching instrument, for what isn’t contained in this book?

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. [. . .]

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

And if nothing else, J. does seem to draw the young boy closer. Rex is a series of twelve “commentaries,” in which J. is speaking to Petya, telling the story of what’s happened to his parents, what’s really been going on. Not that J. explains what’s really been going on in a straightforward fashion, instead this thoroughly unreliable narrator who is always going on and on about the Book and the Commentator (Jorge Luis Borges), the Writer (who is different people throughout the novel) in a way that can be both pedantic and naive all at once. Or, as Prieto explains in his “Author’s Note”:

It is not by chance, either, that Petya is the listener and sole recipient of the story; the whole tone of the book derives from that fact. Rex returns to the free fabulations of childhood, and the tales of Psellus, the tutor, are an amalgamation of all the books he read as a youth or a child, out of which he improvises for Petya a highly adorned story of his parents’ life, a story that otherwise, told in some other way, might have been sordid and terrible.

Plot-wise, things get interesting in this book when J. comes home from a night of dancing and finds a couple blue diamonds in the front lawn. He pockets and hides these for the time being, later finding out that these are a couple of the fake diamonds manufactured by the young boy’s father Vasily, who supposedly ripped off the Russian mafia with these fakes.

At first glance this might seem a bit far-fetched, but translator Esther Allen—who did a marvelous job with this novel, which must’ve presented innumerable difficulties—directed me to an article entitled The New Diamond Age that appeared in Wired magazine a half-dozen years ago and is all about a couple diamond producers who were perfecting a technique to create diamonds and preparing to chip away at De Beers’s stranglehold on the diamond market.

And if this sounds a bit familiar, it might be thanks to The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, a pastiche about Lemoine, a real Frenchman who, in the early 1900s, conned De Beers out of a lot of money by convincing them he had discovered a cheap and easy way to create diamonds from coal.

In Rex, this diamond con leads to a paranoid existence, in which Vasily and his gorgeous wife struggle to figure out a way to be safe—to escape permanently from the threat of the Russian mafia, many of whom vacation in this same Spanish town.

Due to his attraction to Nelly—which presents one of the odder aspects of this book, since J. has no issue with telling her son about how sexually appealing she is to him, how he wants to run away with her, etc., all of which adds to J.‘s peculiar voice and instability—J. gets involved in a grand scheme to pull one big scam and link Vasily to the Russian czars.

Returning to the original point, this wild plot is embedded within a heap of literary references and touchpoints, at times obfuscating what’s going on, but also elevating this work into a sort of game, which, to be honest, left me feeling like I had missed something, a special clue that would eliminate some of the uncertainties in J.‘s story (is he crazy? dangerous? a pawn?), that would make this all make sense.

Not that this is a criticism—far from it. Rex is one of the more stunning achievements from a contemporary author that I’ve read in the past couple years. The novel revels in its literary web of references, in a way that brings to mind the work of Vladimir Nabokov. Prieto isn’t quite as smooth or cocksure as Nabokov was (at least not yet—Prieto has a lot of books ahead of him), but he is working within that same vein, which is rather unusual in today’s commercially obsessed world.

What’s also interesting is that this novel is the last volume in a trilogy that includes Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (not translated into English) and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (published by Grove in 2000). In his author’s note Prieto sets forth a bit of what he’s up to with these books:

With all three novels, I’ve tried to go beyond the realism commonly associated with the autobiographical novel (which all three are), yet not toward magic or magical realism, but rather toward science and a kind of magico-scientific realism, if such a thing is possible.

Prieto is successful in this regard, and hopefully his first book will make it into English in the near future—this trilogy looks like a great start to a long career.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For whatever reason, April is a huge month for literature in translation. According to the translation database there are 39 works of fiction and poetry coming out in translation this month. We will be running full-length reviews of a number of these titles, but over the course of the month, I thought I’d highlight the April titles that catch my eye.

Also, more on this later, but since Shaman Drum is our featured indie bookstore for April, all of the “buy” links below go to their online catalog.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Grove, $24.00, buy)

This is one of the best 2009 books I’ve read so far this year. A very Nabokovian book, the novel is made up of a series of “commentaries” by a young Cuban tutor about his pupil’s mysterious family (possibly on the run from the Russian mafia) and about In Search of Lost Time, which J. refers to as The Book, claiming that it contains everything you need to know. (Proust hovers over this novel, especially in relation to the story of the fake diamonds . . .)


News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark (Dalkey Archive, $18.95, buy)

Del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico is one of my favorite Dalkey books, so I was very excited to find out that they were bringing out another of his books. Epically long (704 dense pages), News from the Empire centers on Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico from 1863 to 1867. This book was nicely reviewed in Publishers Weekly, where it was referred to as “a Mexican War and Peace.


The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago, $25, buy)

Last year Archipelago had more titles on the Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist than any other press—a testament to Jill Schoolman’s taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s list was much the same. The Twin is one of the first big titles Archipelago is bringing out this year, the story of Helmer, a young man who has to return home to take over the family farm after his twin brother dies in a car accident. The story sounds fine, but it’s the laconic writing style that the critics have been praising. Susan Salter Reynolds called Bakker’s writing “fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake,” and Michael Orthofer ended his review with this: “Yet in Bakker’s telling — those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication — it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.”


A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Leland Chambers (McPherson & Co., $25.00, not avail. via Shaman Drum)

I haven’t received a review copy yet, but this novel (which also received an “A-” from the Complete Review) sounds pretty intriguing. It’s a novel about Juan Castellon, a Nicaraguan photographer the author discovers during a visit to Warsaw. The novel is told alternating chapters of Ramierz’s quest to reveal the artist’s identity and Castellon’s own side of the story, and according to Michael Orthofer, “It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.”

17 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

While I was at the AWP conference, a ton of interesting books arrived in our offices, all worth writing about. I’ll try and cover more of these over the next few weeks, but for now, I thought I’d look at the three titles translated from Spanish that caught my eye.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto is one of the spring books that I’m most excited about. Prieto’s first book — Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire — earned him comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, and it sounds like Rex is working in that same vein, as a “sexy and zany literary game rife with allusions to Proust, Homer, Pushkin, and even Star Wars, set in a world of wealthy Russian expats and Mafiosos who have settled in Western Europe.” I talked to Esther Allen at some point when she was working on this translation, and I remember her recommending it highly. Even from the first paragraph it’s evident Prieto has a special command:

I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer. Always the right words, flowing out miraculously, as if he never had to stop and think about them, as easily and naturally as someone randomly humming syllables, nonsense noises, tra-la-la-ing a tune.

It’s thanks to Monica Carter that I recently found out about Scarletta Press. (That and the fact that the director came to the panel I was on at AWP.) A relatively young press, Scarletta is doing a couple of translations this season, including Ignacio Solares‘s Yankee Invasion, a historical novel about life in Mexico under U.S. rule. The novel is written as a memoir-in-process by an old Mexican man haunted by his experiences during the “Yankee Invasion.” Carlos Fuentes wrote an introduction for this novel, and Solares is one of Mexico’s most respected — and prolific — contemporary writers, so this should be worth checking out.

And speaking of contemporary Mexican writers, I also received a finished copy of the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction anthology that Dalkey Archive is putting out thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts cultural exchange project. Edited by Alvaro Uribe (with the translations edited by Olivia Sears), this volume collects stories from sixteen Mexican writers born after 1945, including Cristina Rivera-Garza, Rosa Beltran, Juan Villoro, Daniel Sada, Guillermo Samperio, and Hector Manjarrez. I’ve heard elsewhere that a lot of these stories are Bonsai-esque, and I’ve been waiting to read a number of these authors for years, so I have big hopes for this book. The only thing that sucks (aside from the fact that Open Letter couldn’t apply for this project) is the interior design: I’m all for bilingual poetry collections, but printing prose on bilingual facing pages—especially when the text on the two pages in no way matches up—is sort of bizarre and hard to read. Probably would’ve been cooler to have the English in the front and Spanish in the back, and vice-versa for the Mexican edition.

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