12 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Juan José Saer was one of the greatest Spanish-language writers of the past hundred years. When he passed away in 2005, he was working on La Grande, a novel that brings together a number of characters from his earlier works in an exploration and ends with one of the greatest final lines in literature: “With the rain came the fall, and with the fall, the time of the wine.” (You can read a longer excerpt of Steve Dolph’s translation by clicking here.)

If you’ve read Saer before, you’re undoubtedly dying to get your hands on this; if you’ve never read him, this, despite being his last book, is a fantastic place to start.

To help everyone out, we’re giving away 15 copies through GoodReads. All the info on entering is below—just make sure you do it before March 24th.

And if you’d rather just forgo the whole “entering a drawing” aspect, you can just preorder the book via your favorite bookselling outlet, or via our website.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

La Grande by Juan José Saer

La Grande

by Juan José Saer

Giveaway ends March 24, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


16 July 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Steve Dolph’s translation of Juan Jose Saer’s massive La Grande won’t be available until next spring, but for those of you who can’t wait to sample what may well be his magnum opus, you can check out Two Lines for a long sample:

Tomatis continues: Mario Brando considered himself an experimentalist, but he was a barefaced bourgeoisie. According to Tomatis, he lived and thought like a bourgeoisie. He married the daughter of an ultra-Catholic conservative general, as opportunistic as himself, who changed his political position with every changing government or circumstance. Brando claimed he had combined poetry and science, but his values and his lifestyle were as traditional bourgeois as they come: he raised his daughters Catholic, and when they grew up he married them to navy officers. According to Tomatis, he never went to mass more than his social obligations demanded, but his wife and daughter attended the chic eleven o’clock mass every Sunday. His brother-in-law, according to Tomatis, was also in the military, and, like his father, gained the rank of general. Starting in the sixties, he’d often visited North American instructors in Panama, in Washington, at the School of the Americas. Because his entire career transpired in the shadow of General Negri, the celebrated torturer, he’d been given the nickname, even in certain military circles, of secondary anticommunist, in reference likewise to his subdued personality, a possible side effect of his alcoholism. And, Tomatis says, precisely because of all of this, he’d once been forced to ask Brando for a favor. Tomatis is quiet for a few seconds, remembering, reflecting maybe. Soldi’s, Violeta’s, and the others’ expressions have also turned solemn. Gabriela lowers her head, possibly so as not to have to look anyone in the eyes, or possibly in order to listen better to what she’s actually heard many times already, from Tomatis, from her parents, or old friends that Tomatis and her parents had in common: the story of the disappearance of El Gato Garay—Tomatis’s friend and Pichón’s twin brother—and Elisa, his lover for several years. She was more or less separated from her husband, who knew about the affair. And though she didn’t live with Gato all the time, she would spend her weekends with him, and sometimes, when she wasn’t busy with the children, whole weeks. El Gato spent practically all his time at the beach house in Rincón that had once been the Garay family’s weekend retreat. El Gato lived on almost nothing, odd jobs from friends mostly, enough for food, for drinks, and for tobacco. He left the town less and less frequently; it was extremely strange to see him in the city. When Elisa visited him, her black car would be parked for days without moving, gathering sandy dust. Every so often they’d walk through the town on their way to the grocery or to the butcher shop, otherwise they were always in the white house, which was starting to fall apart, or in the rear courtyard, which could have been cleaned more regularly. They were an unusual couple, polite but not very demonstrative, and at that time being even slightly different from the people around you who put you in danger for your life. (Someone once joked that they were kidnapped because they didn’t have a television.)

And to prepare for this, you really should buy and read The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and Scars.

31 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Numéro Cinq (“A Warm Place on a Cruel Web”) there’s a great feature on Scars by Juan José Saer, a book that I recently claimed in an interview was my “favorite Open Letter book ever.” (And which I qualified by saying that my mind will change by the time the interview is over . . . My book love is 100% fickle.)

In terms of the features Richard Farrell put together, first off, there’s an excerpt from the novel itself:

Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined. Once in a while it could change, but it felt more solid than the crazy mayhem of the dice in the shaker, better than the blind senselessness of their flight before they came to rest on the green felt. My heart would tumble more than the dice when I shook the cup and turned it over the table. You can’t bet on chaos. And not because you can’t win, but because it’s not you who wins, but the chaos that allows it.

In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me. That’s what I felt whenever I shook the dice. In baccarat, my eyes could follow every movement the dealers made as they shuffled the cards and reinserted them into the shoe. First they would spread them out over the table, and then stack them in piles organized in three or four rows. They’d combine all the piles into a single column, two hundred and sixty cards, five decks in all, and drop them into the shoe. Then the game would start. First you had to think about the cards in the shoe. In baccarat, when the player is dealt a five—made up of a face card and a five, a three and a two, a nine and a six, or any other combination—he can choose whether or not to hit in order to improve his score. If the player hits, the entire makeup of the shoe changes. Before, I said that in baccarat I had a predetermined past. But it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future. Objectively speaking, the cards in the shoe are actually a past. For me, ignorant of their arrangement, they become the present and then the past as they are dealt, two at a time. At that point they become the future. And the player’s decision when he lands a five—hitting or standing—changes the cards. But the present is necessary for that change to take place.

Then there’s a review:

A good novel does much more than communicate the events of a story. A good novel also reflects on itself. It dabbles a bit in theory, considers genre and rediscovers form. The well-written book, what John Gardner once called the ‘serious novel,’ borrows from the traditions of the past and gestures toward the future, often in destabilizing ways. A good novel refuses simplistic labeling because it relentlessly stalks the nature of things and, in so doing, it helps resuscitate the very reason we read (and write) in the first place: to render some insight into the ineffable, to close the gap between perception and thought, to diminish the emptiness between the world we experience and the world we feel. [. . .]

Juan José Saer’s novel Scars might well qualify as such as work. Set in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina, the novel is divided into four long sections, each narrated by a different character. Holding these disparate parts together are the events of May 1, Workers Day, a day when Luis Fiore, his wife and young daughter go duck hunting. It’s almost wintertime in the southern hemisphere, and a steady cool rain makes the hunting trip more dread than delight. Fiore and his wife argue all day, but Fiore bags two ducks anyway. He drives back into town, drops his daughter off at home and then stops in at a local pub with his wife. Inside the dingy bar, the ongoing argument between Fiore and his wife — an unnamed character with the mildly derogatory moniker Gringa—escalates. Fiore steps outside, points his shotgun in his wife’s face and pulls the trigger.

Part bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part Robbe-Grillet existentialist romp through a South American landscape, Scars refuses to be any one thing. The easiest comparison of its structure is with the game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). In the game, as in the novel, a single event is recounted by various witnesses, each with his own version. As the game and the novel unfold, the various perceptions skew the seemingly objective facts. What has been witnessed changes. As Joyce does with his theory of parallax, Saer shakes the reader’s sense of certainty. What is true? What really happened? It all depends on the position and inclination of the observer.

Finally, Richard also has an interview with translator Steve Dolph:

RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?

SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.

RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?

SD: The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence. It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.

Definitely worth checking out all of these posts, Scars itself, Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover’s fiction and The Attack of the Copula Spiders.

12 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Scars by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina (though Saer had recently moved to Paris when it was published)
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: The title sounds like an action movie and it would be cool to announce in a scary voice from the stage if it wins. And because it is fucking unforgettable.

This piece is written by the infamous Dustin Kurtz who works at the equally infamous McNally Jackson.

As I wrote to Chad earlier and may have proclaimed, unasked, a few times on the floor of my bookstore, Juan Jose Saer’s Scars is some kind of masterpiece. What I mean here is that this novel plays a single nuanced tune. It plays it with impressive range and variety. It plays it with enough subtlety to overcome the bluntness and stridency of the chosen instrument (male narrative voice in provincial Argentina in the midcentury). But more than that, it does it in such a way that variety itself, that range, that repetition above all, become not just structural methods for Saer but themselves the topics of the book. It is a book about small men, and whatever Saer’s intentions for the work it never grows grandiose enough to indicate a Great Book in ways we are used to recognizing. It is not, as I say, a masterpiece. I don’t generally care for masterpieces. Give me instead books that are lesser, are grounded, books filthy with humanity.

This book languished on my to-be-read pile for too long. I spilled something—what is this, coffee?—on it at some point. And then, this past December, I found myself trying to pull together a list of a few great books translated that season. Open Letter has pretty good credit in my house, and Chad, when first selling it to me, had been pretty exuberant, so I began to read.

There’s this filthy, evil June light coming through the window. I’m leaning over the table. sliding the cue, ready to shoot. The red and white balls are across the table, near the corner. I have the spot ball. I have to hit it softly so it hits the red ball first, then the white, then the back rail between the red ball and the white ball. The red ball should hit the side rail before mine hits the back rail, which it should make for at an angle, after it’s hit the white ball.

That is the opening passage of the book. Incredibly, bravely, it keeps going that way. How do you refuse a book like this? How do you even put it down?

Scars revolves more or less around the story of a single murder, told from the point of view of four men. As we pass through the book each narrator is closer to the murder and each narration is given a shorter span of time. The result is a sort of slow pacing along the path of a meditative labyrinth toward its not-so-nice center. The thing is, I don’t give a shit about that structure. It doesn’t hurt the book but it doesn’t add appreciably to it either. What matters are Saer’s characters and his way of nesting a few indelible details in a wealth of repetition.

While I’m mentioning things to make you avoid the book (“Great recommendation Dustin!” “Thanks, Chad!”) let me say that Scars could be read as misogynistic. It is more complex than that, though many of the characters themselves are unambiguously misogynistic for reasons of youth or spite or because this book is, again, set in Argentina in the mid twentieth century. Saer’s women are seen exclusively through male eyes. And Saer’s men are invariably angry or repressed or confused. The women are not always cast in a flattering light, and are always a source of self-loathing for the men. In fact the true heart of the book is hidden in these men’s frustrated relationships to women and the thick-barked form that frustration takes.

Oh, and the book is boring. (“Why yes, I will buy a copy. That sounds right up my alley, good bookseller. I was just thinking I needed a good soporific.”) Or, it isn’t boring but as I said it plays with boredom. Do you remember the whaling chapters in Moby-Dick? Right in the middle of your sexy harpoon allegory? Well some of Scars is like that. That billiards bit above is nothing. There is a passage about twenty pages long explaining and then over-explaining the rules of baccarat. I now know more than any person I have ever met in the entire course of my life about baccarat, excepting maybe Chad W. Post and Steve Dolph and the lucky folks (I am not being facetious here; they are lucky, this book is incredible) I convinced to buy a copy of this thing because they trust my taste or maybe just liked the pixel-flame cover art.

Another portion of the book, among my favorites, follows an aging judge as he drives up and down the streets of a small town in the rain. “I cross the Avenida del Sur, and at the next corner I turn right, then drive one block and turn left onto San Martin to the north” is a typical sentence. That is oddly specific, yes? After the first page of nothing but driving it becomes oddly hypnotic. After five more pages, you begin to relearn what a novel is.

This is Steve Dolph’s second translation of Saer, also having done the remarkable The Sixty-Five Years of Washington put out by Open Letter in 2010 and presumably their forthcoming edition of La Grande. With it he’s stepping into the shoes of the formidable Margaret Jull Costa, but it’s hard to imagine Saer in anyone else’s hands (or wait, shoes, I guess? Is that the lazy metaphor I was using?) at this point. Dolph is thankfully true to the understatement in this book. There are moments of flame-bright language—during dream sequences, bilious drunken dialogue, an excerpt from a novel in progress—but they are rare, and must leak up through extra-textual cracks in a shell of simple declarative vocabulary. Dolph does an impressive job here, using just the right measure of repetition in the language itself, opting for no more specific phrasing than is necessary. There are staircases, squares, doorways and trees, arcades, gin and long marsh grass. He has a good ear for the break of the sentences, for when a character’s narration should push or drag you, cozy you in or hold you distant. Even more, Dolph manages to coax a different timbre from the voice of each of these five sometimes very similar male narrators. He builds them of slang and its lack, of reflection and its lack, until he’s managed what I hope Saer himself did in the original: a mumbling too-easily-joined chorus of banalities and lust.

Ah that’s right, beer. I spilled a beer on it.

9 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so I don’t really heart Scott Esposito—as well all know, he’s shit at riding a mechanical bull and that is a NECESSARY in my book—but he has been doing a lot of great work lately, and has prompted me to write an appreciation of his recent reviews and round-up of some year end lists that I’ve been digging.

First up though is Scott. The new Quarterly Conversation is out and contains a review of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, (translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) which helps elevate this already brilliant web publication. (More on the new issue next week.)

Just before Thanksgiving, Scott’s review of Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield) was published by The National. As I mentioned yesterday (and in the forthcoming podcast), I just read this and really loved it for its weird and unsettling nature. Here’s Scott’s summary:

A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin’s recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions’ Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with “semiotic signs”, a skewing of a country where rhetoric – and not actual substance – is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia’s affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.

The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they’re injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as “Crypto-Speak” – powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as “everyday speech”.

This is a book that must be read to understood.

But this isn’t the only great book of 2011 that Scott’s recently reviewed—not at all. Next up was his incredibly measured and comprehensive piece at The Critical Flame on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson):

My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space – back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.

The best description for the book – one that might also be suitable for Sebald – is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park . . . it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.

We will be posting our video from the recent Chejfec & Carson RTWCS in the near future . . . But going back to Scott’s run of reviewing great books, his piece on Juan Jose Saer’s Scars (translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph) just ran in Bookforum:

What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters’ attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.

Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book’s larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn’t hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde’s advice that “one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.” In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.

I’ve said it before (and am known to repeat myself), but Scars reestablished my faith in fiction. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. READ IT.

*

Not to shift gears to dramatically, but a lot of year-end lists are coming out (it being December and all), and a few of our titles have been getting some love.

Although it’s not an official “year end” list, I’m probably most psyched that Scars was included on the December list of Movers & Shakers at GoodReads. It is one of only six books featured. TRUST ME, IT IS THAT GOOD.

Over at Emmett Stinson’s blog, he has a list of the “Best Lit in Translation from 2011.” It’s a solid list featuring In Red, Perec’s Raise book, the new translation of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (no, I won’t shut up about how great this is), Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons, and Chejfec’s My Two Worlds. All of these books are worth reading, and I like the way Emmett describes all of these.

Finally, to bring this all back to Scott Esposito, he has an entry at the always fantastic The Millions Year in Reading feature. And one of the books he includes? Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

There are more lists worth discussing (the cool one at Love German Books) and ones better ignored (the so-predictable-that-it’s-almost-not-predictable NY Times list of 100 Notable Books), but for now, this is a decent start . . .

1 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re bringing out Scars, the the follow-up to Juan Jose Saer’s critically acclaimed The Sixty-Five Years of Washington this December, but if you can’t wait till then, you can enter into the GoodReads Giveaway by clicking on the link below. Contest closes on the 15th, at which time 10 lucky winners will be selected . . .

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Scars by Juan Jos� Saer

Scars

by Juan Jos� Saer

Giveaway ends September 15, 2011.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
7 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by Emily Davis on Juan Jose Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, which is translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph and was published by Open Letter earlier this year.

As noted in the past, we don’t run a lot of reviews of our own books on this site, but Emily wrote this for her translation class, and since Saer is one of my personal favorites, I think we can make an exception . . .

Emily Davis is one of the MA students in Literary Translation (aka, the MALTS program) here at the University of Rochester. She was an intern with Open Letter last semester, and did a marvelous sample translation of Damián Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography. You may also know her from the 22 Days of Awesome series that ran all last month.

We’re going to be publishing at least three Juan Jose Saer titles, including Cicatrices (Scars), and La Grande (La Grande?). All three of these are translated by Steve Dolph. Sixty-Five Years was also reviewed in the New York Times a couple weeks back . . .

Here’s the opening of Emily’s review:

It is a sunny spring day in the city you have recently moved to, and on your way to work in the morning, you decide on a whim to get off the bus and walk instead. You are on a major boulevard, but at the point where you begin walking, removed from the city center, it is fairly empty. Your thoughts begin to wander, as they tend to do on a walk alone in the city, and soon you run into an acquaintance, the Mathematician. He has just returned from a trip to Europe, and the two of you fall into step and into conversation about the recent birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, which neither of you was able to attend, but which the Mathematician heard all about from Botón—“Button,” a nickname whose origin you do not know, and a person you have never met, but whose word you are more or less forced to trust as the Mathematician begins to narrate the story of the celebration of the sixty-five years of Washington.

Such is the premise of Juan José Saer’s novel, only that “you” are in fact Ángel Leto, a young man who has just moved to the small city named Sante Fe and is working a number of bookkeeping jobs. The effect is the same, however, as Leto essentially becomes a reader of the Mathematician’s story (according to Botón): as he listens, he goes forming a picture in his mind of the scene and the people involved, much as you might do when reading a book—some objects incomplete or indefinite, facial features hazy or purely imagined, where those details are left out of the narrative:

“Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion, without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never seen, smelled, touched, or tasted [. . .]”

Click here to read the full piece.

7 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It is a sunny spring day in the city you have recently moved to, and on your way to work in the morning, you decide on a whim to get off the bus and walk instead. You are on a major boulevard, but at the point where you begin walking, removed from the city center, it is fairly empty. Your thoughts begin to wander, as they tend to do on a walk alone in the city, and soon you run into an acquaintance, the Mathematician. He has just returned from a trip to Europe, and the two of you fall into step and into conversation about the recent birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, which neither of you was able to attend, but which the Mathematician heard all about from Botón—“Button,” a nickname whose origin you do not know, and a person you have never met, but whose word you are more or less forced to trust as the Mathematician begins to narrate the story of the celebration of the sixty-five years of Washington.

Such is the premise of Juan José Saer’s novel, only that “you” are in fact Ángel Leto, a young man who has just moved to the small city named Sante Fe and is working a number of bookkeeping jobs. The effect is the same, however, as Leto essentially becomes a reader of the Mathematician’s story (according to Botón): as he listens, he goes forming a picture in his mind of the scene and the people involved, much as you might do when reading a book—some objects incomplete or indefinite, facial features hazy or purely imagined, where those details are left out of the narrative:

Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion, without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never seen, smelled, touched, or tasted [. . .]

This is a book about storytelling and reading, and we quickly begin to get a sense of the multiple layers making up Saer’s masterfully crafted narrative. Its structure is Cervantine in its multiple nested narrative frames, where a typical scene in the book may be a joke told by Washington, relayed by Botón to the Mathematician, who then tells it simultaneously to Leto and to us readers, all of which is ultimately framed by the narrator of the text we hold in our hands. To make things just a touch more complex, we can add one more frame to that structure by taking into account the fact that this is a translation.

As translator, Steve Dolph makes a wise move in choosing to preserve the long sentence structure (it is not infrequent to read more than a dozen or even a couple dozen lines of text before reaching a period) and complex syntax of Saer’s text. The style is an essential complement to the layered narrative structure of the book, and it is extremely well executed, in that it draws attention to itself as being extraordinary without being off-putting or feeling too “foreign.” Mechanically flawless, the sentences are not messy or nonsensical, and where they might demand extra attention from the reader to follow the narrative thread, the narrator himself restores balance with his habit of casually checking himself, as in “he—the Mathematician, no?—” or “—Botón I was saying, no?,” or repeating pieces of information, to clarifying and often comedic effect:

Leto follows the Mathematician’s story [. . .] with some difficulty [. . .] transparent passages that allow his imagination, turning on and off intermittently, to construct expressive and fleeting images: there was a feast at the house of someone named Basso, in Colastiné, at the end of August, to celebrate Washington’s birthday, and they had started discussing a horse that had stumbled; the Mathematician—it was Tomatis who gave him the nickname—heard about it from Botón the Saturday before on the Paraná ferry, Botón, a guy he has heard about several times but whom he has not had the pleasure of meeting, and then Washington had said that the horse was not an acceptable example for the problem they were discussing—Leto asks himself darkly, without daring to make the case to the Mathematician out of fear that the Mathematician will look down on him a little, what the hell the so-called problem could be—that the mosquito, if Leto understood correctly, would be a more appropriate creature [. . .]

Besides having multiple narrative frames and sentences with extraordinary numbers of commas, the text is impressive in its several concurrent narratives. There is of course the narrative of Washington’s birthday party, as well as perhaps the most obvious narrative of the characters walking down the street. Besides those two lines, there are shorter strands consisting of, for instance, the Mathematician’s commentary on his trip to Europe, or his telling of his running into Botón on the ferry to Paraná to watch a rugby game. In addition, as readers we are given access to the unvoiced thoughts and memories of Leto and the Mathematician. In Leto’s case, his thoughts are preoccupied by reflections on the recent loss of his father and childhood memories relevant to his relationship with his father and mother. The Mathematician, on the other hand, is haunted by the memory of what he calls “The Incident,” wherein he temporarily went mad in response to being stood up by a Buenos Aires poet who had promised to discuss with him the Mathematician’s laboriously crafted thoughts entitled The Fourteen Points Toward All Future Meter. The Mathematician does not reveal any portion of this story to Leto; it is only as readers of Saer’s text that we are privileged to play witness to this episode that is so telling of the Mathematician’s character. Later, we will see the Mathematician on a plane to Sweden, fleeing the military dictatorship in Argentina and recalling his meeting in Paris with Pichón Garay who, years after the event, attempts to recall once more the details of Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday party. This episode naturally does not figure into the Mathematician’s conversation with Leto on their walk down San Martín Boulevard, since it will be years before the dictatorship comes to power. Again, as readers of the multiply framed text, we are privileged to enjoy additional depth of context, in this case, the revelation of a darker sociopolitical setting for a mostly lighthearted comedy.

All this narrative richness is made possible through an omniscient narrator who is, atypically, also a first-person narrator. While the narrator is not himself a character who plays a role in the novel, he does take on some personality by virtue of narrating in the first person. This unusual combination creates a sense of listening to a narrated film or an audiobook: the narrator can report and comment on the observable story as well as on the characters’ unspoken thoughts, in the way no typical player could, and yet we are continually reminded that there is a human voice behind the narration. The reader, just as Leto—who joins the Mathematician on the street for a stroll and a story—walks alongside the narrator while he unravels his tale.

In his debut translated book, Dolph brings us a delightful read, with language that tickles the brain and a style that highlights Saer’s inventiveness and expertly conveys his sense of humor—muted, pseudo-academic, at times a little bit sad, much like Washington’s own “subtle irony, which should probably leave you thoughtful and could, at the most, make you smile, inwardly more than anything“—the kind that elicits more a half snicker than an LOL, less likely to attract strange looks from, say, fellow commuters as you read The Sixty-Five Years of Washington on your way downtown.

3 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second issue of Little Star (Ann Kjellberg’s new magazine) is available now, and actually contains an excerpt from Ingrid Winterbach’s forthcoming novel, The Book of Happenstance. (Not to jack this post, but I’ll be posting info about all our spring titles—including this one—in the very near future.)

To celebrate Winterbach, Little Star just posted an excerpt from her first Open Letter novel, To Hell with Cronje.

Read, enjoy, and purchase here. (And don’t forget to support Little Star—such a wonderful journal. In addition to Winterbach, Issue #2 contains an story from Juan Jose Saer . . . )

28 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just a reminder for everyone in the Greater Rochester Metro Area (which is apparently the tenth smartest city in the U.S.?) that today at 6pm the next Reading the World Conversation Series event will take place. This one is entitled “The State of International Publishing” and will feature translator Steve Dolph talking about the process of translating Juan Jose Saer’s “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington“:
http://catalog.openletterbooks.org/authors/24#sixtyfive and his experiences publishing CALQUE magazine. Yana Genova from the NextPage Foundation in Bulgaria will talk about publishing in “small” markets and the social impact of translations.

It’s sure to be a lot of fun—just wait until we get into the argument about ebooks!—and I hope to see some of you there.

All the info is on the image below, but just in case—it’s taking place at 6pm in the Hawkins-Carlson Room in the Rush Rhees library.

7 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Although Argentina disappointed the world me greatly by choking—choking!—against the well-oiled and efficient German soccer army, I still heart the hell out of this country. When I retire (yeah, real funny, like, I’m sure I’ll receive a Genius grant right around that same time), I want to move to Buenos Aires and live the final years of my life scuba diving and drinking in cafes. And reading all the amazing literature that Argentina has produced. Borges, Cortazar, Bioy Casares, Ocampo, Sabato, Arlt, so on and forth.

And Juan Jose Saer. I first came across Saer when he passed away in 2005. A few of his books (Nobody Nothing Never, The Witness, The Investigation, and my favorite, The Event) had been published by Serpent’s Tail, but unfortunately, Saer never seemed to get the credit he was due. At least not in this country. (Written as if that’s some sort of surprise. If I had a penny for every under-appreciated world author I’d be able to retire somewhere crazy, like Argentina.)

When he died, Saer’s agent (Guillermo Schavelzon Agencia Literaria and the wonderful Jacoba Caiser) pushed to get some of his untranslated works out there. To have him rediscovered after his death. (If I had a nickle for every post-death rediscovery . . . you know, you know.)

So based on the collective love for his earlier works (especially The Investigation and The Event . . . wow), Open Letter decided to sign on three books: The Sixty-Five Years of Washington (a.k.a. Glosa, but Gloss just sounded too toothy and slick for us), Cicatrices (which will probably become Scars) and La Grande (which, uh, The Grand?? Not so sure about that), and will be bringing these out over the next few years, all translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, the editor of the mind-blowingly good Calque magazine (soon to be press?).

We’re kicking off this Saer revival with The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, which comes out this November, and is absolutely brilliant. And our friend Rahul Soni—who happens to be part of the first class coming to the University of Rochester to be part of our M.A. in Literary Translation program—ran an excerpt from this novel over at the brilliant webmagazine Pratilipi.

Here’s Steve’s brief set-up for the excerpt and description of the book:

Saer’s Glosa—to be published this fall by Open Letter as The Sixty-Five Years of Washington—was first published in 1985, in the middle of what would become a thirty-year exile in France. It recalls an Argentina of twenty-five years previous, before guerrilla terrorism and millitary repression overwhelmed the country. But “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” isn’t mid-century cosmopolitan nostalgia—just the opposite. The novel is concerned with hearsay and memory, how they work to distort both the past and the future, how they shape and deform our sense of the so-called “real” world, how they simultaneously alienate and connect people. Over the course of the book we see the characters being slowly erased by the contradictions inherent in their recollections.

In the selection below, Leto and an engineer nicknamed The Mathematician have been walking downtown through the small city of Rosario, discussing the birthday party of a mutual friend, Washington Noriega, a party neither attended, before The Mathematician suddenly ducks into a building.

Go. Go now. Read it in full. Saer’s a masterful stylist, and this literally is not to be missed.

Well, if you’re still here, least I can do is give you a taste:

Absorbed, as we’re in the habit of saying, in his thoughts or, if you prefer, as always, in his memories, Leto steps away from the tree, walking slowly toward the intersection. He has just forgotten about the Mathematician. Like the stage actor who does a pirouette and then disappears into the darkness off stage or, better yet, like those sea creatures who, ignorant of the sun that makes them flash, reveal, periodically, a glistening spine that sinks and reappears at regular intervals, a few images, sharp and well formed, approach and abandon him. Distracted, he crosses the street and arrives at the opposite sidewalk—and his distraction is also what makes him go through with the paradoxical act of stopping on the bright sidewalk and turning back toward the corner he has just left, knowing unconsciously that he is waiting for someone or something, but not knowing exactly who or what, or better yet, and strictly speaking, his body is what turns and stops to wait—Leto’s body, no?—that unique and completely external thing that, independent from what, inside, yields control and continuity, now casts, over the gray pavement, a shadow slightly shorter than him—his body, I mean—plump and young, standing in the morning, on the central street, giving the world the illusion, or the abusive proof, maybe, of his existence.

In a hurry, the Mathematician walks out of the newspaper office. Seeing him, Leto for a fraction of a second thinks, What a coincidence, the Mathematician, until he remembers that they have been walking together for several blocks and that he’s been waiting for him on the sidewalk for a couple of minutes. The Mathematician walks straight to the middle of the sidewalk and noticing Leto’s absence stops suddenly, disconcerted, but, turning his head, spots him on the next sidewalk and resuming a normal stride and smiling apologetically, starts walking toward Leto, who also smiles. And the Mathematician thinks: Did he decide to leave? Maybe he crossed the street to put some distance between us and now he’s smiling back guiltily. The editor had sat reading the press release on his desk without making a move to touch it, as though it were a venomous snake. They probably have me blacklisted, the Mathematician thinks. But, like a magician who makes several plates at once dance at the edge of a table, his thoughts are occupied at the same time with Leto, and the Mathematician, to show his good will and that the delay wasn’t his fault, hurries a little without managing to get very far, as the traffic on the two-lane cross street is stopped on the corner because of the movement on the central street, forcing him to wait a moment at the cable guardrail, smiling at Leto over the cars advancing at a walking pace.

Being able to share Saer with the English-speaking world is an example of what makes publishing worthwhile. (That and the money, naturally.)

26 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I don’t think I received a press release about this, but the 2009 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation has been awarded to Roanne Sharp for her proposed translation of La Mayor by Juan Jose Saer. Which is fantastic—we’re actually publishing three Saer books over the next few years, but not this one. . . . At least not yet.

The award is given to a young (under the age of 30) literary translation for a proposed project. Each year the prize focuses on a different language (last year it was German), and following the announcement, the translator is “employed” for a four-month period to complete the project. (This is one I can’t wait to read . . . )

In addition to Roanne Sharp, there were two honorable mentions this year:

  • Rosemary Peele for her proposed translation of Viaje olvidado and Autobiografía de Irene by Silvina Ocampo

and

  • Emily Toder for her proposed translation of Tres poemas y una merced (o cuatro poemas desplazados) by Sergio Chejfec. (Another author we’re going to be publishing . . .)

Congrats to Roanne Sharp at the runner-ups, and I’ll be sure to make an announcement about submitting work for the 2010 award as soon as the info is available.

22 April 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Next year we’re publishing the first of three novels by Juan José Saer, and Steve Dolph (the co-founder and co-editor, with Brandon Holmquest, of the translation journal and soon-to-be-book-publisher Calque) will be translating all three of the novels.

The other day Steve sent us a paragraph from his translation of Glosa, and he was kind enough to let me share it with you here (he even gave us a little context). It’s only a paragraph, but what a paragraph!

The following scene is from Glosa, by the Argentine novelist Juan José Saer (1937 – 2005), forthcoming from Open Letter next year. Winner of the Nadal Prize in 1987 and a student of the French new wave, Saer’s work was influenced by the nouveau roman writing of the late 1960s, a strong departure from the magic realist tradition culturally dominant in Argentina at the time. Closer in style and subject to writers like Julio Cortázar and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Saer’s writing tends toward an interest in the isolation of urban life and psychology, particularly the psychology of violence. Originally published by Seix Barral in 1986, Glosa tracks two young men from Buenos Aires as they walk together across the city along the central street, the Avenida San Martín. In the passage below, the narrator, Angel Leto, is looking back at his friend, nicknamed the Mathematician, whose completely white outfit (including white moccasins) has up to this point been described with considerable irony, as he crosses the street to catch up with him after a brief separation.

He is present, clearly visible. For some reason he ignores and which he of course is not thinking about, Leto’s thoughts and memories are interrupted and he sees the street, the trees, the newspaper building, the cars, the Mathematician, the sky, the air, the morning, as a clear and animate unity from which he is slightly separated but completely present with, in any case at a fixed and necessary point in space, or in time, or matter, a fluid or nameless but no doubt optimal location, where all contradictions, without his having asked or even wanted it are, benevolently, erased. It’s a novel and pleasant state, but its novelty doesn’t reside in the appearance of something that didn’t exist previously but in a build-up of evidence in the preexistent, and the pleasure, in turn, doesn’t reside in a gratified desire but in some unknown source. It’s hard to say whether the clarity comes from Leto or from the objects, but suddenly, seeing the Mathematician advance upright and white from between the trunks of two cars separating in opposite directions Leto begins to see the group, the Mathematician included, not as cars or trees or houses or sky or human beings, but as a system of relations whose function is no doubt connected to the combination of disparate movements, the Mathematician forward, the cars each a different way, the motionless things changing aspect and location in relation to the moving things, everything no doubt in perfect and causal proportion so that living it or feeling it or however you’d call his state, but without thinking it, Leto experiences a sudden, blunt joy, in which he can’t distinguish the joy from what follows, sharpening his perception.

....
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