27 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

One of my personal concerns going into the World Cup of Literature was ending up with a book I had already read—something that quickly became not an issue at all, since out of the 32 representing titles I’d read a whopping one of them. ONE. So, unlike many of my fellow judges, I entered this with zero biases (unlike the Real World Cup, where GERMANY ALL THE WAY! You done got jawohled, USA) or existing knowledge. Which definitely made this a partly disconnected and partly ridiculous—but wholly entertaining—experience.

Representing Costa Rica in this literary matchup is Óscar Núñez Olivas’s Cadence of the Moon, which is based on the first known serial killer of Costa Rica, and is pretty much the only book written in that country, ever1. Among other things, it’s filled with chauvinism, smoking, and a lot of sultry women with huge racks who just don’t seem to get laid enough or at the right time. It’s also filled with some of the weirdest, non-standard narrative descriptors I have ever, ever read. (More on that later.)

To put the structure of Cadence of the Moon simply, think All the President’s Men, but with crappy journalism, better hair, ritualistic violence, and if Watergate had ended with everyone saying “So do we know who our culprit is? No? Oh, okay. Well . . . Hey look at how cool the moon is!”

And in case you want to know what Costa Rica was like in the mid 1990s, serial killings aside, Cadence lays on the sexism: Maricruz, our Journalist Extraordinaire and one of the main protagonists, barters with her editor, Juan José Montero, for the right to cover the story of the Psycopath murders for—any guesses?—a kiss:

“If you want to cover [the story], I’ll give it to you but the price is a little taste of those goodies.” He indicated her lips by pursing his own, musty, nicotine-stained ones.

Even though this disgusting display of, well, everything, ends up being more of a “friendly” teasing tactic the editor uses to rev up his employees, it’s apparently entirely normal; Maricruz proceeds to tells off her boss, who laughs, then they exchange a few more comments on the case, and then he gives her the assignment. No one gets slapped, no one gets fired. Same old, same old in Costa Rica. Then Maricruz is advised by her colleages to cozy up to the cop working the case, Gustavo . . . And no they don’t bang. Poor, curvy Maricruz. The plot is stilted, the characters frustratingly simple—and this is a novel sparked by a serial killer. Nixon’s shady doings dropped a far more interesting plot-brick than this. And what kind of gets me about this is that Núñez Olivas himself is a journalist. There’s even an ironic section later on, in which the newspaper’s owner, Mr. Grey, is insulting Juan José Montero’s staff, and Montero comes to his employee’s aid, saying something along the lines of “What do you think this is, the Washington Post?” . . .

Within the first 40 pages of this book, Cadence has scored an embarrassing, slow-rolling self-goal, putting Costa Rica up 1-0 before anything really even happens. And oh, by the way, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. At this point I’m begging for someone to get bitten. But oh no, Uruguay keeps its mouth shut as Cadence continues to make things worse for itself, progressing from being Woodword and Bernstein’s Aspergersy, Canadian second-cousin to Dan Brown’s Post-it covered, Montessori-bound lovechild. I once listened to The Lost Symbol on a two-day drive from New York to Minnesota, and 10 hours into my drive I was about to lose my shit because no one had died, nothing major had happened, the plot hadn’t gone anywhere, I was in Indiana, by myself, and with a guaranteed twelve more hours left of that awful, awful book. GAH!

Clearly, lots of PTSD cropping up while working through Cadence. But then, out of completely nowhere, Costa Rica whips out its shiny bits. This otherwise boring, sluggish, based-on-real-events novel with a cover that smacks of self-publishing, suddenly started spitting out some of the most curious, awkward, brilliant sentences like:

“What?” Maricruz lit up with the brilliance that is seen in the faces of adventurers, archeologists and taxonomists.

(Whatever taxonomy Núñez Olivas has researched, it must be goddamn glorious. Classify these samples, you say? Sure thing—just give me a second in the bathroom alone with this spreadsheet . . .)

And:

[Camila] is twisting like a snake, gyrating, licking her lips. She lifts a breast with her right hand and offers it to me. “Suck it!” her half-open lips seem to say, although she says nothing, she just offers the large, dark breast, whose formidable hardness is a last glory amid so much ruin.

(Sweet Jesus. Is this guy about to get pistol-whipped by some cougar’s fake tit as she trashes epileptically on top of him like a charmed cobra? For his sake, I’m hoping Núñez Olivas is either a virgin, or gay, because no sexually active straight man should ever have to experience this, or know how to describe it so vividly.)

And:

“You’ve got a date!” Gustavo exclaimed in the voice of someone announcing the arrival of aliens.

(This sentence both baffles and tickles me. What does it sound like when you announce the arrival of aliens? Fear? Surprise? Arousal? All of the above? I’m going to use this tone the to announce to someone I won’t be paying back their $20.)

There’s just such a wacky brand of specificity to the writing at times that does seem journalistic in its descriptive nature, but is so, so entirely off in terms of human behavior and real-life situations. No book should read like this, no sentences this entertaining should be embedded in something so blah. And yet, I kind of love it.

Costa Rica points to the sky and then flicks Uruguay in their dongles while the ref isn’t looking, and equalizes during the commotion. The score is now 1-1.

Uruguay’s representative, Mario Benedetti, ends up being somewhat of a dark horse. It’s not often that I’m compelled to sit and read a 300-page book of short stories in one go, but Benedetti manages to keep things relatively interesting, very smooth, fairly metered, and overall well-trained. The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories is a fair opponent, blending various narrative voices with various themes—political, social, gender roles—and even though the text itself isn’t that mind-blowing, the stories roll at a steady and clean pace.

What Uruguay had in this case that Costa Rica didn’t was presence. It can be hard to pit a historical-type novel against short stories, but short story collections can so often work against themselves. The Rest Is Jungle is a collection that knows what it’s doing, where it’s going, where it’s from. (Unlike Benedetti, apparently, who writes in an epigraph: “We are a small nook of America which has neither oil, nor Indians, nor minerals, nor volcanoes, nor even an army dedicated to coups. We are a small country of short stories.” Oh honey. America? You’re Argentina’s fanny-pack at best.)

From the very first story, Benedetti establishes his abilities to switch narrative voice. His narrators move from a precocious cleaning lady who decides to marry her way into the rich family she once worked for, to a dog observing its owners argue, to two boys sneaking into a ceiling passageway over a sports or youth club to spy on girls in the showers. The stories alternate from amusing to disturbing, from familiar to uncomfortable.

One of the most poignant stories was “The Cups,” in which a woman, her husband, and his brother are sitting in the living room about to have coffee. The husband has some kind of disease that has rendered him blind. At the time of the story, the three are sitting around, talking, trying to convince the husband to go to the doctor for a check-up, which he refuses to do. The three make conversation, and then we learn—and see—that the brother-in-law has been recently comforting the wife; we see him silently massaging her neck, cupping the back of her head in his hand, simple touches that give her strength and compassion where her husband has started to lose his. (And no, they don’t bang. At least not in this scene.) They have their “routine” down pat, conducting every calculated, dead-quiet caress right there on the sofa in front of the blind husband coordinated and dead quiet. The story gets emotional for the wife, how she’s had to learn to deal, etc. etc. Then the story closes with the coffee being ready to serve, and as the wife sets down the coffee cups, which she rotates each week so each person is drinking from a different color, the husband mumbles something that sounds like “No, dear. Today I want to drink from the red cup.” End scene.

Not all the stories captured my attention, but I do appreciate the experimentation Benedetti employs to get his words across.

“The Big Switch,” for example, is written in a format that is very non-standard compared to the rest of the pieces. In it, a police officer is swearing (“Shit on the holy whore.”) about all the arrest warrants he has to sign, his broken pen, and the idiots working around him. But the paragraph breaks and shifts to the other story line, where a singer named Lito Suárez BITES EVERYONE IN SIGHT AND THEN THE WHOLE BOOK IS DONE. Kidding. But if only . . .

A singer named Lito Suárez announces to TV viewers that he’s come up with a new song, a kind of song-game, called the “Big Switch,” in which everyone watching will learn the four verses/lines of the song, the proceed to sing these lyrics all day, every day, for the whole week. At the end of the week, Lito will reconvene on TV and announce a change to the first line. Suggestions are welcome from the audience, but only if they follow certain guidelines. Interesting paragraph breaks, drawn out and mashed-up words . . . It’s visually exciting as well:

Lito Suárez is going to announce how “The Big Switch” sounds after the first transformation. “or one week we’ve all sung the song I taght you last Sunday. . . . I’ received 5,473 suggestions to change the first verse. In the end, I selected this one: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen.’ Yaaaaaaaaaaaay, says the channel’s young audience. . . . Disappointed, Julita stops eating her nails. Her brilliant suggestion ended up among the 5,472 rejects. “Within a week, we’ll replace the second verse. Agreed?” Yesssssss, scream the audience

the colonel displays his teeth. “Yes, Fresnedo, I’m with you. The new songs are idiotic. But what’s wrong with that? . . . What does it sound like? Wait, wait. Even I know it by heart: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen, so thatyourl ooooooooove awaken, foryouI render myv ooooooooice, formeo oooooooonly loving you.’

So even though The Rest Is Jungle doesn’t wow me, doesn’t make me want to snake-dance on top of people and slap them with my anatomy, Uruguay puts in a far more solid performance via Benedetti’s work. Uruguay scores another point, putting the game at 2-1 in their favor, and Costa Rica would scream in frustration, but their mouths are taped over by serial-killer-grade newspaper tape (what is that stuff on the cover, anyway??).

But then again . . . Maybe Costa Rica has one more shot on goal? One more approach from Cadence:

[Camila] entered the office and spoke in the authoritarian tone that had worked infallibly during 22 years of marriage

“Home!” she said. “You have to rest.”

Bill Grey did not even lift his eyes from the keyboard. He barely arched an eyebrow and replied with astonishing lucidity.

“Why don’t you take one of your sometimes lovers? I am busy.”

It was the first time that he had reproached his wife for her sexual adventures, which she had supposed he was ignorant of. Disconcerted by his response, Camila set off for her office without saying a word, afflicted by a sudden onset of diarrhoea.

(Noooooope.)

And on that note . . . Costa Rica literarily-literally shits the bed in its final shot on goal, before tucking its tail and turning to head home—giving the game to Uruguay, 2-1, and leaving a wake of streak marks behind it.

1 It’s actually more like the only Costa Rican book to be translated into English, which should be remedied because OH MY GOD.

——

Kaija Straumanis is the editorial director at Open Letter, and translates from both Latvian and German.

——

Did The Rest Is Jungle Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


5 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This isn’t exactly books related, but in case you’re one of the millions of people of people who have come across this photo recently (like on HuffPo, HLN TV, Reddit, Daily Mail The Sun, Bored Panda, the oft-ridiculed Flavorwire, and several others), I have two things to tell you:

1) Yes, that is a copy of Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, which is published by Open Letter; and,

2) Yes, that is Open Letter editor Kaija Straumanis, whose series of “Headshots” have gone totally viral (over 3 million visits to her Flickr page in just over 24 hours).

Congrats to Kaija! Hopefully some percentage of these visits will buy one of her photos or her translation of High Tide or the Vilnius Poker website.

12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Kaija Straumanis on A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, translated by Napoleon Jeffries, and out from Wakefield Press.

Based on the above paragraph and all the awesome that it contains, this book really shouldn’t need much more introduction: it’s a guide to adventuring, which is cool; the translator’s name is Napoleon, which, right on; it’s from Wakefield Press, one of my all-time favorite small presses. It is common practice at the Open Letter office that, when a new Wakefield review copy comes in the mail, Chad enters it into the “Translation Database” and then promptly hands the book over to me, at which I point squirrel it away and exclaim several things, including but not limited to “Shit yes,” “Mine,” “OmgomgWakefield,” and “I’M SQUIRRELING THIS AWAY.”

There are myriad reasons why I love Wakefield Press so much (they’re also the publisher behind the ENG translation of Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy), but I fell in love with their books after reading René Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays. Pataphysical Essays was a book I wish I had written a review on, but was never able to bring myself to do it—partially due to laziness, but mostly because I had no idea how to write about a book I loved so much but could only peripherally understand. Pataphysical Essays is one of the most insane things I’ve read in the past few years; it’s so scientifically non-scientific, and a joy to find so much humor and delight in something that confused me. It’s absurd, it’s profound. And boils pataphysics (and the world) down to the beautiful equation of:

To know x = to know (Everything – x)

ANYWAY. Back to adventuring. Even without mind-blowing mathematics my brain can stomach, Mac Orlan’s guide (originally commissioned by Blaise Cendrars), is a witty and tongue-in-cheek book/commentary that essentially outlines two types of adventurer—the active and the passive—which of the two is better, how he must function in order to be successful, and warnings for individuals “wishing to seek literature in life.” Here’s the beginning of the review:

For the rest, go here.

12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs, or transport a secret package that turns out to be a member of a royal family? Though if you were to actually find yourself in those situations, chances are you’d pee an amoeba-shaped spot onto the front of your pants and wish you were anywhere but there. Basically, and for the most part, these types of scenarios and adventures are best left to the movies, books, and TV shows.

Pierre Mac Orlan says the same. Written in 1920, his A Handbook to the Perfect Adventurer is a dry humored and smart look at how fun it can be to be an “active” adventurer, but how, in the end, it’s probably best to be the “passive” adventurer—a manipulative character of sorts who encourages the active adventurer to go on ahead, and then sits in the safety of his home reading about adventures and imagining what they would be like (all the sexy parts of danger inclusive).

Because it’s been far too long since I’ve written a review, I’m going to apologize, and then just wing it. This is a book you can easily read in one night (if you skip the endnotes, and most of the introduction [sorry, Napoleon! Mac Orlan’s background is fascinating and the intro is well-written, but I just wanted to “GET TO THE WHALE!!” already]), and one that should make you chuckle out loud now and then, unless you don’t get dry humor, but maybe instead you’ll pick up on that WWI facet, in which case, man, those was rough times, hope you don’t get flashbacks.

With short chapters and the occasional list, the Handbook is an entertaining blend of reality and fiction with language that is both playful and essayistic. Mac Orlan doesn’t give you a moment of rest from his instructive train of thought, beginning the first lines of the book with:

It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist. Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it . . .

Because an adventure is only an adventure once you label it as such. As kids we devour adventure stories, recreate them in our backyards or basements; as adults sadly, the majority of us drift away from the Gulliver’s Travels and 20,000 Leagues level of adventure stories because we are painfully aware of how juvenile it all is. True, we find the detective, the futuristic—but for some reason, the level those types of books are on seem acceptable and even plausible (re the futuristic part). I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Mac Orlan isn’t so much saying that our imaginations die completely as we grow older, but perhaps our willingness to believe in a fiction more real weakens, instead opting for stories that are either more probable (zombies), or things so ridiculous (sexy[?] half-squid, half-jungle cat space goddesses), that we don’t have to do a lot of mental footwork to get into it.

Mac Orlan goes on to stipulate that the only position he as the writer can advocate safely is that of the passive adventurer. The person reading adventure novels, the person sitting snugly at home only imagining what it would be like to sink into quicksand, instead of being like the active adventurer (whose main features are “total lack of imagination and sensitivity”), who brings shame to his family (they would cry tears of joy if he accidentally got lost at a fun-park, never to return), is always causing trouble, and who would be better off far, far away from the rest of us.

The emphasis and preference placed on the “passive” adventurer is great, even though this type of adventurer is initially said to be a parasite that can exist “only on the exploits of the active adventurer.” But there’s much to be said for living vicariously through the adventures—real or fictionalized—of others, particularly if it means not dying in some stupid way at the hands of a half-squid-half-jungle-cat queen. Mac Orlan states the childhood of the passive adventurer must be completely opposite of that which the active adventurer leads, and can be achieved by a number of characteristics, including:

A conscientious study of the humanities (texts to restore in the future).
Discretion in lying.
A cult of sensibility.
A complete absence of what is commonly called “moral sense.”
A respect for traditions and discipline.
A hatred of violent games, of sports in general—at least in practice. When it comes to theory, the passive adventurer must be a well-informed sportsman.
Literary eroticism (in practice: normal relations with women).
Able to write “whore” in twenty languages.
Knows how to play a few sailor songs on the accordion.

And, most importantly,

Has a gullible friend who can be made into an active adventurer.

Basically, passive adventurers are knowledgeable book-nerds who get all kinds of laid while their unnecessarily macho friends are out futilely battling a band of alligators that have evolved to walk, talk, and kidnap rich heiresses (who probably had it coming anyway). Though all this could, of course, be applied to actual, tangible life, Mac Orlan equates the passive adventurer to being “a more or less conscious novelist.” There it is, my friends. The passive adventurer is someone who has essentially retained a pure imagination, someone who is a creator, someone who knows adventure inside and out without having to get his hands dirty, while the active adventurer is all “WOO, PARTY!” and not a lot of thought process.

While I wouldn’t say Mac Orlan would support an entirely Proustian lifestyle, he clearly favors the passive to the active, though he does maintain that the active adventurer has his purpose. It’s a Möbius strip situation: the passive adventurer creates these adventure novels that are then read by future passive adventurers, who then evolve to become the next generation of passive adventurers, who then create . . . And in turn, those who don’t evolve to become passive adventurers and instead pick up their machetes/slingshots/wasp spray on their way to become the next active adventurer—those are the people who serve as subjects for their passive counterparts. Without one, the other can’t exist.

8 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of World Literature Today is now available, and filled with great stuff (an interview with Anne Carson, feature on Naomi Shihab Nye, profile of 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature winner Mia Couto, a feature on Arabic books for teens), but in addition to the magazine, WLT has an outstanding blog and just today ran a feature on Open Letter author Inga Ābele:

Inga Ābele, born in 1972 in Riga, has written plays and screenplays, collections of poetry, stories and novels. Her play Dark Deer was staged in Latvia, at the Stuttgart State Theatre, the Bonner Biennale, and in Greece, being made a feature film in 2006. Iron Weed was staged in Latvia, Denmark, and Finland; Jasmine premiered in Latvia and was staged in Lucerne. Her poetry collections include Night Pragmatist and a collection of prose poems, The Horses of Atgazene Station. Her 2001 novel, Fire Will Not Wake You, was published in Lithuanian in 2007. Her story collection Notes During the Time of Snow won the Annual Award for Literature in 2004, and another collection, Still Life with Pomegranate, was published in French translation in 2005. Ābele’s 2008 novel High Tide was published in in Swedish translation in 2009 and in English translation in 2013.

I’m going to interrupt here to remind you that Open Letter was the press that published High Tide, and it was translated by our editor, Kaija Straumanis.

In other words: You should really buy this book. (You can even get the ebook directly from our site for a mere $9.99.)

This interview is as much about Inga’s life out in the country as it is about Lativan literature, but, and I’m sure Kaija can back this up, Inga’s living arrangement sounds pretty ideal:

Seven years ago Ābele left Riga to live in deep in the forest near Sigulde, site of an ancient castle, with her hot-air balloonist partner, Gunars Dukste. [. . .] They live on a smallholding that belonged to a baron in the 1800s: wild boars come at night to dig up the lush grass with their snouts and eat it. A tower is set up for a neighboring hunter who hasn’t had any luck yet. They’ve built a perfect, snug house on the foundations of what was once the cattle shed, with the weathered old outbuildings still standing about, a great stack of wood ready for winter. Gunars takes haunting photos of the countryside of Latvia while floating over it.

Another interruption: Gunars’s book of hot air balloon photos will be available in English in the not-too-distant future. (Kaija also translated this.) More info on that in a future post.

And finally, about Inga’s forthcoming books:

She is finishing up a novel titled The Wicker Monk, which has been three years in the writing. The “wicker” in the title comes from the way in Latgale, where the protagonist lives a life of celibacy, everything is woven together for strength, large families hold together. After that she has a contract to write a historical novel about collectivism in the 1950s in Latvia, due to be finished in 2015.

Maybe Open Letter will bring out one-both of these in the future . . . But for now—check out High Tide: it’s a stunning book that combines lush, provocative prose with a gripping plot about a love triangle and a killing. (Although this plot is told in semi-reverse chronological order . . . so the killing only makes sense at the end of the book. It’s like an anti-mystery novel, I suppose.)

10 September 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I mentioned this in my September translation overview post, but for those who missed it, we’re currently selling the ebook version of High Tide for $3.99.

The book itself—which is amazing, more on that below—officially releases on September 26th. So, this week the ebook is $3.99, next week it’ll be $5.99, then $7.99, reaching it’s normal full $9.99 list price on the day that the print version comes out.

In other words, you should buy yours now.

It’s not up on iBookstore yet, because Apple is slow, but here are the other links: Amazon, Nook, and Kobo.

Translated by Kaija Straumanis, our editor and one of the first graduates of the University of Rochester MA in literary translation program, High Tide is one of the first Latvian novels to be published in America. Ābele, a contemporary playwright, poet, and novelist, was featured in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction anthology, where Aleksandar Hemon referred to her as a “sharp realist.”

Here’s the jacket copy:

Told more or less in reverse chronological order, High Tide is the story of Ieva, her dead lover, her imprisoned husband, and the way their youthful decisions dramatically impacted the rest of their lives. Taking place over three decades, High Tide functions as a sort of psychological mystery, with the full scope of Ieva’s personal situation—and the relationship between the three main characters—only becoming clear at the end of the novel.

One of Latvia’s most notable young writers, Ābele is a fresh voice in European fiction—her prose is direct, evocative, and exceptionally beautiful. The combination of strikingly lush descriptive writing with the precision with which she depicts the minds of her characters elevates this novel from a simple story of a love triangle into a fascinating, philosophical, haunting book.

On a more personal note, our local international book club read and discussed this last week, and everyone unanimously loved it. In fact, one participate read it all the day of the book club and wept—on several occasions. This book is powerful, beautiful, and provides a sense of Latvia without being too wedded to the history or politics of the country.

Casey O’Neil at Elliott Bay Book Company is a huge fan of the book as well, and even wrote up this blurb:

Starting with the end and moving back toward the beginning, we follow Ieva as experience washes over her, as love transforms over time, as traumatic events wreak havoc forever even as they’re over in an instant. The book’s reverse trajectory both accentuates and softens the trauma, as our knowledge of what’s about to happen interacts with our experience of each moment. Ābele’s rendering of Ieva’s endurance is both matter of fact and transcendent, making this a novel that brings real light to real darkness. Its moving finale actually brought me to tears.

Point being, this book baller and you should buy it for $3.99. Right now.

31 January 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I’d like to talk a bit about submissions.

Because I’ve had a very stressful and involved week of cataloging, catching up with, and responding to every single submission Open Letter has received since essentially July of last year, I’m a little on the edge right now when it comes to submitters repeatedly asking about their translation samples. And by on edge I mean I had a few minutes of snapping this morning, and thus decided that a nice, public rant about the whole submission process was wholly appropriate. And by appropriate I mean god damn necessary.

The ideal situation would be for people who submit to our press, or to any other press, to understand a little something about the process behind it and how the world does not revolve entirely around their samples. It’s so much more than one person with a questionable fashion sense and a warm carton of orange juice sitting in a back room with stacks upon stacks of “slush pile” material to sort through. At least for us it is.

Open Letter is not unlike many small, independent presses in that we are, essentially, a three-person operation (this not including semester- or summer-long interns). As editor, it falls into MY duties to receive every single submission sent to Open Letter. It doesn’t matter if you address an email or envelope to Chad, or to Nate, because it’s all going to end up on my desk and in my inbox. And I get to look at every single one of them. And because I am, surprisingly, a polite and considerate person by nature, I reply to every. Single. One of them. And because I am, surprisingly, just ONE person, it’s going to take me a while to get back to every query.

So, first and foremost, if you’ve ever submitted—not just to us, but to any press—and have yet to receive a reply to your query: BACK. OFF. Seriously. Take 20 deep breaths, count to 10, go for a walk, make yourself a sandwich, a tasty one. But honestly, please just back off. We’re working on it.

Read More...

19 December 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast features Chad, Nathan Furl, Kaija Straumanis, and Will Cleveland talking about their favorite albums of 2012. (And sometimes 2011.) It’s a pretty tight podcast, featuring thirteen different artists and some interesting insights into why we each like different styles of music. Oh, and of course we digress a bit to talk about awful job postings and whatnot.

Read More...

22 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Way back at the start of the year, I promised that this year’s ALTA would be “THE GREATEST CONFERENCE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE OF CONFERENCES.” Now, I’m not sure that was the case—although it was the most interesting ALTA I’ve ever attended—but it was awesome enough to get mentioned in the New York Times.

[A]mong the polyglots who convened this month in Rochester for the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association — where the topic was “The Translation of Humor, or, the Humor of Translation” — there is a sense of cautious optimism. At least some measure of levity, these dedicated professionals believe, must be able to migrate between languages. The French, after all, seem to appreciate Woody Allen.

“It takes a bit of creativity and a bit of luck,” said David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton, who, as he prepared his keynote speech for this year’s conference, confessed to finding a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning: “A pair of translators walk into a bar.”

(During the conference, Alex Zucker actually came up with a joke using that opening: “A pair of translators walk into a bar . . . (It was better in the original.)”)

The humor panels we had at the conference were pretty spectacular, especially one moderated by Open Letter editor (and U of R translation grad) Kaija Straumanis and featuring Emily Davis (fellow U of R translation grad), Matt Rowe, and Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich, translators of The Golden Calf. One of the reasons this panel worked so well was because of Kaija’s introduction, which centered around the different ways George Saunders’s “Pastoralia” is funny in English and in the German translation.

Might some funny bits actually get funnier in translation? In the title story of George Saunders’s “Pastoralia,” a character is paid to impersonate a cave man at a theme park, his employers providing a freshly-killed goat to roast daily, until one morning he goes to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Among the many possible renderings of this made-up word, Saunders’s German translator chose ziegenleer, a lofty-sounding melding of “goat” and “void” with no exact equivalent in English.

“The German translation is accurate, but the word combination tickles some kind of orthographical, sound-receptive funny bone,” explained the Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis, the editorial director for Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literature in translation press and one of the conference organizers. “The more high-minded you make it sound in your head, the funnier it gets, implying a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”

The whole article is worth reading—and thanks to Jascha Hoffman for writing such an informative piece about such an interesting topic.

1 October 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week, Chad W. Post and Kaija Straumanis talk with Philip Graham — a co-founder and current nonfiction editor of “Ninth Letter,” author of several books, including “The Moon, Come to Earth:Dispatches from Lisbon” — about Portuguese culture and literature, specifically the works of Gonçalo Tavares, whose book “The Neighborhood” is coming out this month with Philip’s introduction. (Which will appear here on Three Percent in the near future.)

Read More...

21 September 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast features special guest Kaija Straumanis to help preview the upcoming American Literary Translators Conference. Every fall, approx. 350 translators get together for three days of panels, discussions, readings, movies, and drinking. (Oh, and mechanical bull riding.)

Read More...

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post |

This week’s podcast is a special Eurovision edition featuring resident Eurovision expert, Kaija Straumanis. We go through a bunch of the videos/songs participating in this year’s competition and make fun of almost everything while also trying to come to understand why Eurovision is so compelling in its bizarreness. To follow along with our comments, I highly recommend watching the videos below as you listen to the podcast—it will greatly enhance your listening experience.

Read More...

17 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is a special feature on Kaija Straumanis, who recently received her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester. Although our conversation is a bit rangy (and if you think this is random, you should visit Plüb sometime), we focus mainly on Kaija’s translation of Latvian author Inga Ābele’s Paisums (High Tide).

High Tide is a somewhat fractured novel that tells the story of three main characters: Ieva, a deeply depressed screenwriter; Aksels, her former lover; and Andrejs, her husband, who was imprisoned for murdering Aksels. Structurally, this novel is pretty interesting as well. It opens with a dream, then inhabits the minds of the main characters in a series of “present day” chapters. After we see where these characters are post-jail, post-murder, etc., the book starts counting backwards, with sections about the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, to fill in certain aspects of the plot and characterization.

To help make this podcast make more sense, I’d highly recommend reading this fairly long sample that covers a lot of the bits that we talk about.

For more information about the University of Rochester’s Translation Programs, just click here.

And in terms of Kaija, in addition to translating from Latvian and German (on occasion), she’s a very good photographer. Oh, and she’s obsessed with Moby-Dick (in a way), which maybe explains the title of this podcast, and the reason why we’re using Yellow Ostrich’s Whale as this week’s intro/outro music.

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link.

17 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The sample below is from Kaija Straumanis’s translation of Latvian author Inga Ābele’s Paisums (High Tide) which we discuss in this week’s podcast. Even if you don’t listen to the podcast (and if you don’t, why not?), you should take a look at this—it’s a really interesting book.

In the Beginning

God didn’t create words.

In the beginning there was a dream.

And at the end there was again nothing but a dream.

God appeared to a woman in a dream that was like death.

God found the woman within the dream and said to her:

“If you agree to live your life in reverse, you’ll have the power to give life back to your lover, who died young. Just don’t get your hopes up—your meeting at that crossroads will last about twenty minutes, no more. Then he’ll continue on toward old age, but you, back to childhood.”

The woman agreed immediately.

God said:

“How strange. Do you really value your own life and experiences so little that you’re willing to undo it all without a second thought?”

The woman said nothing.

She remembered this dream when she awoke.


Turns Out—We’ve Lived

She doesn’t need any more advice—patterns, examples. Maybe it’s just a whole new level, but right now she doesn’t need it. She doesn’t read books, newspapers or magazines, doesn’t use the Internet or watch TV, doesn’t go—God forbid—to the theater. It’s like being wrapped in a blanket up to your chin: you see and hear everything, but can’t move a muscle. Everything is right there around you, within arms’ reach. She wanders the house and now and then picks up something, grabs onto something, touches on something. A sentence from a newspaper, a phrase from a Mexican soap opera, an idea from Proust. They’re all always going to be right.

On her walks, Ieva goes around the forest in circles. Then on her birthday she asks herself a question—why do I walk in circles, like a dog chained to a post? Because of my fears? Only because of my harsh, bitter fears? I can walk in a straight line, she tells herself—and whenever I want. So when she does finally walk straight she only feels like she’s actually getting anywhere. Her surroundings change, but the content doesn’t. Big cities are all essentially the same, and every country has farmers wearing plaid, made-in-China shirts. Any new place that she ends up, she eventually has a close group of friends a lot like the last. The group will always have a mentor, a lover, someone she’ll betray, someone who’ll betray her, an enemy, and friends she can talk to and find spiritual healing with, saving money on therapy.

Once in a while she breaks from the campaigns, the marathons, the expeditions, and returns to the doghouse and sits next to her chain. Sits absolutely still, like a Bedouin gazing into the distance, and then writes. Script writing is usually complicated, but all of her scripts are about the same thing. All very clichéd, and when she tries to make excuses to the director he tells her: I need you precisely for the clichés. Because the ending needs to be something predictable.

Her scripts are about how nothing happens because nothing can ever happen. Not a single molecule is lost in the eternal cycle between the earth and the heavens. Only a pure soul can hope to break free from the carousel of life and death, into the cosmos through the tunnel of light and at a speed that makes everything down to the smallest particle feel simultaneously heavy and weightless. Everything shrinks until it disappears, until it’s erased from the memory of the world along with its time. But to live your life until your soul is pure—don’t laugh, it’s not that easy—you have to become a Buddha, a Christ or a Mohammed. You have to become light itself, a pure soul. Then you can be on your way. But it’s a long way and you’ll be scrubbed, doused, and wrung clean until then. Those few mistakes that will haunt you, jolt you awake at night, and force you to keep going on, these mistakes that you carry with you your entire life—in the end they’ll destroy you. But keep thinking about them, keep thinking. It’s gratifying to keep picking away at them. It will heal you.

Eventually she doesn’t even write the scripts herself anymore, just touches up those written by others and sends them in. She takes the finished product and objectively embellishes them. She’s done work like that before—adding details to bulletin posters in her school days, a pioneer in the last generation of an aggressive Soviet empire. Her homeroom teacher called it “giving life” to something. “Take it to Ieva,” the teacher often said, “she’ll give it some life.” And Ieva would take her black marker and give the dull pencil sketches some life, be it Lenin or the Easter Bunny. A wavering shadow in the distance, a gleam in Lenin’s eye, and the tense muscles in his jaw, something she’d seen in her father’s face when he shaved in the morning. And Lenin would come to life. The Easter Bunny would, too.

Everything is proof of it—this forced gift of existence—even the tired face of a small-town bus driver in the early morning; it speaks of longing, the endless patience you have when scrutinizing good fortune that has unexpectedly dropped into your lap. And what does life offer in return…the quiet hum inside the bus where you can warm up, a change from the frozen and bleak winter landscape… What does it offer in return? A kiss goodbye from your wife before you head out, and the mildly bitter taste of coffee with cream? The early morning fog and a dead moose on the side of a road? Like an Indian who gets glass beads in return for gold, you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread. The feel of a dog’s wet nose against your hand. The look in your children’s eyes. A bird feeder. May it all bring you joy, says this opposing, unwanted, huge opportunity—Life. Truth everywhere, like rows and rows of weeds that need only a bit of rain to grow: a handful of TV shows, a handful of philosophical essays, a handful of tight-lipped snobs, a handful of bartering vendors.

Her mother’s mother, Gran, used to say: you’ll never know where you’ll lose something or where you’ll find it, and, if you knew where you’d fall, you’d put a pillow down first. In many ways Gran hadn’t outgrown childhood, had never experienced passion, never been disillusioned. She remained an innocent; that was her destiny. Her cheerful daily greetings were proof she had never discovered herself, her own anger, or her deeply hidden doubts. Doing so would mean being sent into freedom, out of the Garden of Eden. She had stayed in Eden, playing in rows of sun ripened, wild strawberries. And among the bustle were all life’s sentences—her parents’ deaths, her husband and children, the people she loved. But she never said “love” because she didn’t know the word, hadn’t evolved to words. Gran had been her parents’ pride and joy, a helper at the dairy farm with her white apron and silky ash-blonde hair, someone who never grew to know hatred. More precisely, she was oblivious to any daggers of hatred aimed at her. Instead, they went through her like she was nothing because she didn’t believe in bad people—just people. Her only sins were her pride and self-reliance. She always had tickets for sugar and bread, but also always had more for extra things. A kind word and a helping hand, the sense to put others before herself; she believed it was her choice and responsibility. She didn’t need anything from the Lord God, just some nice Lutheran Christmas songs and spiritual peace. She hadn’t unlocked that little door in her heart that led to spite. She stayed in her bud; her entire life spent in it and as a child. God and humanity attack these kinds of people more than anyone else because there’s something obnoxious about them. But neither God, nor humanity can use their endless recipes for disaster on these people because these people lack any trace of hate—and God can take a vacation since there’s no one to peddle vices to. Having fulfilled her duty to everyone she loved, Gran quickly retreated to her inner child, back into that bud. A small, polite girl who always walked on the sunny side of the street. And that’s how she ended her journey. She was stuck in her bud, in her helpless innocence, and then all the world’s charges were piled on top of her. Stay helpless as a baby, an animal, a prisoner, a fool, an alcoholic, a one-legged bum in a tunnel—and the world will quickly chafe you until you bleed, and you’ll understand why you’ve always needed God. You put Heaven on a pedestal while you still have the strength. And when you grow weak you see the devil. Not the one with horns and a tail, but the devil in the hurried compassion of the fast-paced world, the one that will kill you with kindness. [. . .]


Mother

Mother tries to remember where she’s seen it before.

Faces peering at her from a glaring brightness.

Big eyes. Lips that are saying something, smiling, cooing, scolding. Faces that pull her from the comforting darkness and into the light.

An avenue.

For a moment she sees her father; he points out the leaves overhead. She is a child in her stroller, a child absorbing every single detail. She sees the leaves and becomes them, submerges herself in them and their silky movement.

The faces in this narrow room are like the leaves. They form a canopy high overhead, full of rustling movement and a teasing wind. The faces look at her as she lies there like a dried-up worm, wedged between the body pillow and the wall. A pair of hands throw open the curtains—a window fills with light.

“Good morning! Time to get up,” a light voice says.

The face leans in very close—it’s a woman’s face.

Mother opens an eye. The other is crusted over with pus. She looks at the faces and her toothless mouth whispers a few syllables in greeting. Mother is afraid of the daytime, afraid of the daily routine. She’ll be rolled over, picked up, moved, washed—it hurts and it makes her uneasy. Mother wants to tell them she doesn’t understand why she needs to get up anymore. She’s tired, but they won’t leave her alone.

“And the worst is she somehow gets in there with her left hand. She grabs and tears at the diaper and then smears shit all over the place. She’s out of her mind. I’ve got to change the bedding twice a day—all of it.”

Mother closes the one eye and pretends this talk isn’t about her. For several years now her good eye has been covered by a film, a rapidly swirling fog with tiny black spots.

“You have to figure something out. I’m sure you can do something like tie a shirt over her chest,” says a second voice that’s lower, infused with darkness.

Mother likes that voice better.

“She doesn’t get in from the top, but from the bottom along her thigh. The entire bed is flooded by morning. She pees so, so much. And if there’s shit I can’t even come in here without gagging. You wouldn’t believe the smell,” the first voice complains, white and clear as a ray of light.

You can’t hide from that voice, so Mother just shuts her eye tighter.

“Maybe like something for a baby. A onesie that buttons up the sides.”

“Won’t work. Since the last treatment she’s completely lost it. Look at how small she is—but she’s heavy, as heavy as a rock. She’s dead weight, ten times heavier than me. I make her stand up so her legs won’t totally atrophy. A few minutes a day. When I come home from work I have her sit up. You can’t believe how hard it is. I’ve sprained my back—it hurts. No, no, no. No onesies, no pants. She can’t even lift her legs. It would just mean extra clothes for me to wash. No, no, no. I had an idea yesterday—I’ll secure the diaper with electrical tape. Or a wide strip of duct tape. What do you think?”

“You can’t do that, Mom. Her skin will get infected.”

“You think so? Well, then I don’t know.”

Mother pretends she is dead. Pretends this stupid conversation isn’t about her. People only talk like that about children who misbehave. She’s not a bad child, never has been. No, no, no. [. . .]


Andrejs’s Religion

Andrejs very carefully took two fragile champagne flutes in his calloused hands and handed them to the woman. Then he took the card leaning against the wall behind the glasses and sat on a stool next to the small table. He studied the yellowed paper as intensely as a war refugee who’s been pulled from the water and given a passport, and who can’t believe this thing could save his life.

The card was drawn with lead pencil on regular notebook paper and then glued to cardboard. Its edges were decorated with barbed wire, which connected at the top in a knot around a red rose. The lettering For Ludmila—Ruslans was separated by a date, in which the number two looked like a swan with a proudly curving neck. The drawing also had the North Star and the aurora borealis. Small lettering at the bottom read: She dreamt that in the Caucasus steppe…

So she wasn’t an accountant! So that’s where he’d seen that handwriting and date before! How could he forget?

Andrejs asked:

“Ludmila?”

“Yes.”

She sat on the opposite stool at the table and twirled a strand of hair around her finger. Like she was flustered, clueless. When she lifted her eyes to meet his, they were bright with tears.

“That’s the last card my husband sent me.”

She wanted to tell him more, but he silenced her with an impatient gesture. He still couldn’t decide if he should go home right away or later. If he started to talk now, it would mean he wouldn’t go home until later.

But he started to talk. He hadn’t become a heartless monster yet.

“You don’t need to tell me. I drew this.”

The expressions on the woman’s face changed as quick as the wind, chasing after one another like the shadows of falling leaves—while she sat very stiff and straight, her eyes searching his face to figure out what his words could mean.

“Ruslans and I met at the Central Prison Hospital. He was already admitted when I was brought in. We were together for a week, or less, I don’t remember. In any case no more than a week. I was there when he died.”

The woman let out a weak scream, and the tears finally overflowed. She wiped the wetness across her cheeks with the back of her hand. Andrejs handed her a towel, which she immediately bundled up into a kind of squirrel’s nest and hid her face in it. He waited patiently for her to look up again.

“You could say I was the prison artist. I framed photographs by sewing plastic wires around the edges, drew on materials using safety pins and colored thread, etched wood, sketched. Ruslans found out and showed me your handwriting. Asked me to draw a card and write the words like you did. He really liked your handwriting. I recognized it right away, but thought that you worked at the prison as an accountant.”

The woman nodded feebly. She rummaged in a drawer without looking away from him and placed a candle on the table. She burned her fingers with the first match.

“Tell me how he died,” she said, her voice somber.

“He died at night. I was writing a letter to my wife, he was lying down. I thought he’d fallen sleep. Then he suddenly started coughing, ran to the door and banged on it like crazy. All at once, about a bucket of blood spewed from his mouth. And then he fell over. I lifted him a bit and held him, but he had already started with the death shakes. The guards came and took him away.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Don’t worry, it happened quickly. He didn’t suffer. It was over the second he ran to the door. Later the nurses said one of his pulmonary veins had burst.”

More silence.

“But he managed to send the card out. When’s your birthday? Sometime in May, right?”

“May second.”

“And what’s this about the Caucasus, if it’s not a secret?”

“He was a really good person,” she finally said.

“I know. So what about the Caucasus?”

The woman thought for a bit.

“She dreamt that in the Caucasus steppe—
He lay still, a bullet in his breast . . .
And yet, I am Ruslan’s now,
And will be faithful to my vow.”

Andrejs propped the card against the windowpane so its edges were surrounded by the reflection of the candlelight.

The woman said:

“We liked poetry, like Pushkin’s ‘Ruslan and Ludmila.’ I’d read it to him when our kids were still little. Before he got mixed up in that damn gang and robbed that gas station… He was so surprised that there was a poem like that—about us, he said—just imagine! About us!”

The woman stood and opened the refrigerator. She pushed the champagne toward Andrejs, having suddenly grown very calm. He opened the bottle just as calmly and poured the chilled liquid into the glasses. In the reflection of the flame, the bubbles dancing in the sparkling wine seemed like lonely planets.

19 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Jules Verne’s The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz, which came out earlier this year from the University of Nebraska Press in Peter Schulman’s translation.

Kaija is an about-to-graduate MA student in Literary Translation here at the University of Rochester. For her thesis she’s been translating Inga Abele’s High Tide from the Latvian—a book we’ll be featuring here on Three Percent in the not-too-distant future when Kaija and I do a special podcast about Latvian literature, Harlequin romance novels, and other things both appropriate and in-.

Since Kaija sort of explains Verne in the opening part of her review, I’m going to abandon the typical format and just go straight into that:

Jules Verne was a French master of fictional works portraying the fantastical that were primarily geared toward young readers, literary escapists/adventure seekers, and adults who want to experience a taste of their childhoods. Three of his best-known works are probably Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Seas, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which, respectively, go a little something like this:

1. A man, for some reason or other, decides he can make it around the world in 80 days.

2. A man, for some reason or other, decides to travel to the center of the earth.

3. A man, for some reason or other, spends his time in his fish-shaped submarine taking out the bad guys.

To read the full review, click here.

19 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jules Verne was a French master of fictional works portraying the fantastical that were primarily geared toward young readers, literary escapists/adventure seekers, and adults who want to experience a taste of their childhoods. Three of his best-known works are probably Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Seas, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which, respectively, go a little something like this:

1. A man, for some reason or other, decides he can make it around the world in 80 days.

2. A man, for some reason or other, decides to travel to the center of the earth.

3. A man, for some reason or other, spends his time in his fish-shaped submarine taking out the bad guys.

If you’re like me and grew up in the suburbs reading the Wow! Doritos of literature like the Fear Street series or anything based in the Midwest and prominently featuring ox-drawn wagons and corn, you had almost zero contact with anything Vernian and probably looked up the above summaries on a website that’s like Wikipedia on paint fumes.

That said, I was excited to crack open my first ever Verne book (and the first English translation of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz). However, the only information I had to reference style-wise was what translator Peter Schulman wrote in his introduction: “. . . Verne’s later novels became increasingly pessimistic and alarming to a young readership used to the earlier, joyous tales of travels and discoveries.” Additionally, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is said to be Verne’s final novel, and one of those mystical manuscripts that was only discovered and published in the original French in the 90s.

The plot of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz deals with the elements of dark magic and, more importantly, the idea of invisibility. Narrator Henry Vidal, travels to Ragz, Hungary, to meet his brother Marc’s fiancé Myra Roderick and her family. But soon Henry learns that creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy Wilhelm Storitz, who recently proposed to and was turned down by Myra, is still lurking in the peripheral picture and is probably out to take revenge. For the longest time no one’s really sure how far the scorned Storitz will take things, but once all kinds of weird, invisibility-related shit starts happening to the family and in relation to Marc and Myra’s upcoming wedding, it’s almost unanimous that the source is a certain creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy:

That’s when I saw . . . actually, a hundred people could see what I was seeing, but we all refused to believe it.

Here was the bouquet lying on the table—the engagement bouquet, suddenly ripped to shreds; its flowers were apparently being stomped upon and strewn all over the floor . . .

This time it was a sensation of terror that fell upon us! Everyone wanted to flee the scene of such strange goings-on! . . . I was even asking myself if I were completely sane amid such irrational occurrences.

Captain Haralan had just joined me, and pale with anger, he announced:

‘It’s Wilhelm Storitz!’

Wilhelm Storitz? . . . Had he gone mad? . . .

At that very moment, the bridal wreath rose from the cushion upon which it had been placed, traveled across the drawing rom, then, without our being able to see the hand that was holding it, flew through the gallery and vanished into the garden.

The rest of the story mostly involves waiting for the narrator and other characters to catch up to Storitz and figure out how he’s been pulling all these freaky-malicious stunts.

Because I’m unable to compare The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz to Verne’s earlier works, my next best bet was to line it up next to Henry James—specifically The Turn of the Screw. Not only does Verne’s story contain the similar, chilling and spooky content as James’ famous ghost story, but Schulman has done well in mimicking the vocabulary and sentence structure of late 1800s/early 1900s English in his translation, something that is already apparent in the first paragraphs of the text.

While not as fantastically flourished as James’ writing, that turn of the century feel the translation has is immediate—something that definitely made it easier to get right into the swing of and accept Verne’s novel for what it was—a simple and straightforward kind of mystery-cum-fantasy story. And as said in the book’s introduction, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz definitely has its share of dark events and pessimism. The plot itself stays within Verne’s realm of magic realism, and reads quickly and lightly, but also has those undeniably dark moments that keep it far from slipping into the children’s literature genre. Think city mobs, torched houses, and semi-random corpses.

And while I can’t say I agree with the quotes on the back cover that say the novel “soon accelerates into an intense, high-speed thriller” or that the plot is “a sinister, devious fable with an unprecedented ending that grows more and more astonishing the longer you think about it” (I mean seriously, have any of these people read The Turn of the Screw? That book and ending eff with your mind for weeks . . .), or Peter Schulman’s incorrect use of the word “myriad” (three times in 190 pages), what I can say that it was an enjoyable read and wonderful introduction to Verne’s style of storytelling.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, and available from Archipelago Books.

Kaija Straumanis is a grad student in the MA translation program (MALTS for short) here at the University of Rochester. She’s currently in Latvia, “partying like an Eastern European” (?!) and trying to find the perfect work of Latvian Literature for Open Letter.

I assigned Stone Upon Stone for the “World Literature & Translation” class I taught last spring. It’s 534 pages long. I initially thought there was going to be a silent coup, with everyone griping about all the stuff they have to do for other classes . . . But no! Everyone loved the novel. (Or almost everyone—I’m remembering this with an optimist’s viewpoint.) And with good reason. This is my early favorite for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award due to Szymek’s incredible voice, and Bill Johnson’s amazing translation. This is a stunning book—one that is very easy to get sucked into . . . Those 534 pages fly by as if it were a novella! (Well, OK maybe not fly, but still.)

Here’s the opening of Kaija’s review:

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

Click here to read the entire review.

13 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English.

This is something that can be credited to translator Bill Johnston, who through interviews and discussions on the translation of Stone Upon Stone communicates the utmost care and consideration that went into his translation of the novel. This is not a text you could chuck into something like Google Translate and get back even a modicum of the introspection and linguistic qualities necessary to make Szymek Pietruszka “happen.” Stone Upon Stone is a work that would demand the complete understanding of its narrator—possibly even demanding becoming one with the narrator—and judging by the final product, Johnston has done this mammoth read due justice.

And although the book appears massive, it reads surprisingly quickly. The borderline stream-of-consciousness narrative style runs a full circle course through Szymek’s life, and the narrative voice is simple, conversational, and easy to follow. It’s like pulling up a stool at the bar in your hometown next to that oddly endearing (and rather inebriated) story-teller who everyone knows and who oozes faux modesty and a lingering scent of cabbage pierogis.

It was the same when I was older and I’d go caroling with the other boys, no one would agree to be King Herod, because death cut Herod’s head off and no one liked to be killed. So I was always Herod, because I preferred being king to being afraid of death. We had a real scythe, one that was used for mowing, not a fake one with a wooden blade. When death cut your head off with a real scythe you felt death was real, too, and not Antek Mączka dressed up as death in a white sheet. Especially because each time I was killed the blade of the scythe had to touch my neck, not just knock my crown off . . . There was just that one time Antek Mączka brought the scythe down and nicked my till I bled, so I took his scythe away from him and kicked his ass and he didn’t play death anymore.

Even though the entire novel may at first seem like nothing more than one tangent after another, there is a method to the rambling madness. Each chapter heading is closely connected to everything that falls under it. For example, the chapter “Brothers” looks not only at Szymek’s relationship with his own brothers, but also looks at his dealings with a pack of vengeful brothers from next door, and even at the greater “brotherhood of man.”

It is precisely the things that determine Szymek’s douchery—and the similar or complete opposite actions and reactions of those around him—that make Szymek more realistic, easier to relate to, and ultimately more human and even likeable. Instead of seeing him for the demigod he makes himself out to be, we get to know Szymek as a man who has lived through the struggles of pre- and post-ward Poland, dealt with the hardships of rural Polish life, family struggles, personal gains and losses. The more Szymek talks himself up, the more he undoes his facade. And the more the mask is undone the more it becomes clear that this is less the story of one man and more the reflection of human kind. Of course it helps that any hint of overbearing life lessons or preaching is ushered out by Szymek’s outlook on the world, which is an odd combination of life-loving cynicism and matter-of-fact morbidity. Pair this with flawless delivery and you get a novel that, although at times contains less palpable content and themes of death and suffering, warrants many outbursts of laughter at Szymek’s anecdotes. Sure, he may be a self-absorbed, quasi-alcoholic jag who represents human suffering, triumph and mankind as a whole, but he’s your self-absorbed alchy jag, dammit, and you just can’t help but love him for it.

8 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaija Straumanis on Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse and soon to be available from Archipelago Books.

Rytkheu is one of the only (if not the only) Chukchi writers to be translated into English. His A Dream in Polar Fog came out a few years back to a decent amount of critical attention, and I suspect that The Chukchi Bible will also do pretty well. You can read an excerpt from this new book at Archipelago’s website.

Kaija Straumanis is one of the MA Translation students here at the University of Rochester and is currently working on a translation of a Latvian novel. She also has a large interest on translating humor and is well known among the translation students for the very entertaining, polyphonic way she reads aloud . . .

Here’s the (very Three Percent) opening of her review:

A bird flies around, takes a few shits, the shit turns into land and, voilà, the world is created.

That may sound like a summary of a terrible animated short or a 1970s acid trip, but it’s simply my poorly hyper-abridged version of one of many truly beautiful Chukchi folk tales that mark the beginning of time and man in Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible. Here’s the real version:

“A raven was flying over an expanse. From time to time he slowed his flight and scattered his droppings. Wherever solid matter fell, a land mass appeared; wherever liquid fell became rivers and lakes, puddles and rivulets. Sometimes First Bird’s excrements mingled together, and this created the tundra marshes. The hardest of the Raven’s droppings served as the building blocks for scree slopes, mountains, and craggy cliffs.” [. . .]

Author Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is considered the “father of Chukchi literature“—though the title should probably be more along the lines of “only Chukchi literary figure“—and during his lifetime, published several novels and collections of short stories and poetry. Only a few of his works have been translated into English, the most recent preceding The Chukchi Bible being A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006). Rytkheu was born and grew up in the coastal village of Uelen, which is located in the Chukotka region of Russia and is the country’s eastern most settlement. While his previous works have been fictional, The Chukchi Bible is a hybrid of legend and hard fact. In a short introduction Rytkheu explains, “The book is not just the story of my lineage, and not just the story of our clan, but also the genealogy and the root of all my books.”

Click here to read the full review.

8 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A bird flies around, takes a few shits, the shit turns into land and, voilà, the world is created.

That may sound like a summary of a terrible animated short or a 1970s acid trip, but it’s simply my poorly hyper-abridged version of one of many truly beautiful Chukchi folk tales that mark the beginning of time and man in Yuri Rytkheu’s The Chukchi Bible. Here’s the real version:

A raven was flying over an expanse. From time to time he slowed his flight and scattered his droppings. Wherever solid matter fell, a land mass appeared; wherever liquid fell became rivers and lakes, puddles and rivulets. Sometimes First Bird’s excrements mingled together, and this created the tundra marshes. The hardest of the Raven’s droppings served as the building blocks for scree slopes, mountains, and craggy cliffs.

There’s just something amazing about folk tales. I grew up with them as bedtime stories and have had a soft spot for them ever since, even preferring them to all things Disney. See, I find fairy tales lack that realistic nitty-gritty and hometown hero charm only a culture-specific folk tale can evoke. “Folk tales” focus on specific aspects of a culture, its values and history, whereas “fairy tales” are mostly about dwarves, princes hooking up with princesses, and evil queens getting tossed into canyons. While both forms of story telling are meant to entertain, folk tales are better in regard to educating and reminding us where we come from. And The Chukchi Bible has no shortage of heroes, culture, reality and that delicious nitty-gritty that makes stories like this all the more tangible.

Author Yuri Rytkheu (1930-2008) is considered the “father of Chukchi literature“—though the title should probably be more along the lines of “only Chukchi literary figure“—and during his lifetime, published several novels and collections of short stories and poetry. Only a few of his works have been translated into English, the most recent preceding The Chukchi Bible being A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006). Rytkheu was born and grew up in the coastal village of Uelen, which is located in the Chukotka region of Russia and is the country’s eastern most settlement. While his previous works have been fictional, The Chukchi Bible is a hybrid of legend and hard fact. In a short introduction Rytkheu explains, “The book is not just the story of my lineage, and not just the story of our clan, but also the genealogy and the root of all my books.”

The first part of The Chukchi Bible is a crash-course in the Chukchi way of life—something that is so far removed from anything I’ve personally known or understood that it took some getting used to. Harpooning whales and spearing seals for food and clothing, washing their faces with urine to improve complexion, accommodating a guest by letting him sleep with your wife or daughter . . . Rytkheu’s writing and vivid imagery brings out the best and worst, the most common and most abnormal of the life on the Arctic coast. What I mean by this is that, while the customs, actions and lifestyles described are initially shocking, I was eventually able to understand that it was simply the way things were done; out of a necessity for survival and a respect for one’s culture.

The second part of the book starts with the birth of Rytkheu’s grandfather, Mletkin. Once the book moves into Mletkin’s life, the imagery and tone of the narrative take on a more personal feeling:

Mletkin always had a particular, not to say unnatural, curiosity about death. Whenever it fell to him to assist Kalyantagrau in helping someone to die, he would peer intently into the dying one’s face, and each time he was just as astonished at how little the dead person resembled the living one. Oh, on the outside, the two were similar enough. But only on the outside. It was strikingly apparent that something internal and imperceptible was disappearing, something invisible but so essential that the body of the deceased suddenly seemed so more than a covering, the outer clothing of the person who had now passed into the unfathomable beyond.

The story follows Mletkin throughout his life—from a boy just going through the motions of village life in Uelen, into a young adult who starts to see how the outside world is not only different from his own, but can also be detrimental to it, and finally into a man who has traveled the world and is so self-aware it is at times frightening.

However, it’s hard to label the entirety of Rytkheu’s work purely as fiction. The Chukchi Bible is a record of how and what the Chukchi hunted, what they ate, what they wore, how they named their children, claimed their spouses, and how their culture was slowly but surely upended by both Russian and American influences. And yet it focuses on Rytkheu’s own family and is a kind of homage to his grandfather, Mletkin, the last shaman of the coastal Siberian village of Uelen. This historical account of the Chukchi people and the author’s roots is lush with mystic elements of Chukchi folk culture. Biography, history, fantasy—it’s a three-in-one deal. Rytkheu moves smoothly from one genre to another in a conversational, educational, but never boring manner.

What’s great about The Chukchi Bible is that it conveys the hauntingly beautiful connection between man and nature alongside the scientific aspects of the harsh reality in which Rytkheu’s resilient ancestors lived and interacted—all the while weaving it seamlessly with that folk tale thread. The emotional and factual experience while reading this is analogous to taking a book of the Brothers Grimm and a National Geographic documentary, mixing it into a half liter of Coke, then dropping in a Mentos and enjoying the ensuing explosion as it all rains down.

That’s right—it’s freaking awesome.

....
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

Read More >

The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >

Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

Read More >

Little Grey Lies
Little Grey Lies by Hédi Kaddour
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .

Read More >

Autobiography of a Corpse
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Reviewed by Simon Collinson

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .

Read More >

A Musical Hell
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .

Read More >

Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >