14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on César Aira’s Conversations, translated by Katherine Silver and out from New Directions.

After a wild World Cup of Literature ride, what better way to wind down or frustrations or victorious cries than to talk about them (or bite each other over them)? And because I lack the attention span to get all existential and tie the title of Conversations to something deep and meaningful—and because I happen to have a bit more self dignity than usual today: just look at the brightly colored word bubbles bleeding into each other. Aren’t you mesmerized?

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

In typical Aira style, we go from hyper-intellectual propositions to absurdly hilarious arguments of “logic” that are deeply rooted in the protagonist’s psyche. For example, a view of the protagonist’s reaction to the friend’s view of the film:

[I]f he did not understand the difference between the actor and the character in a movie, he was an imbecile. And if he was an imbecile, I had no choice but to lose all intellectual respect for him, and which was worse, it meant that our conversations were wiped out as far as everyone about them that was good and gratifying for me. . . . In order to appreciate the magnitude of my disappointment, I should explain just how important conversations are for me. At this stage of my life, they have become the single most important thing. I have allowed them to occupy this privileged position, and have cultivated them as a raison d’être, almost like my life work. They constitute my only worthwhile occupation, and I have devoted myself to enhance their value, treasuring them through their reconstruction and miniaturization on my secret nocturnal alter. Hence, if I lose the day, I also lose the night.

From here, the novella quickly strays from “reality” and into a further level of Aira’s imagination without the reader noticing—also typical Aira. As more and more facts of the cable movie are described between the protagonist and his friend, and the protagonist continues to present bias comments of his allegedly correct interpretation of the facts, the reader suddenly finds himself watching the movie. Here the novella has shifted from the conversation to the action of the film. The film itself is incredibly unrealistic [other world being, toxic algae, secret caves, CIA] but somehow seems more realistic than the conversation among the friends. Perhaps Aira makes this shift to allow the reader to choose which party has the correct interpretation, or Aira is playing a game with the reader on the boundaries of reality. Adding to the seamless commingling of the conversation and the movie events are the protagonist’s concessions to what he maybe missed when taking a break himself. The protagonist eventually admits: “All you had to do was blink and you were lost.” Here Aira causes the reader to ponder whether the exploration of the unrealistic sheds light onto reality.

As for the translation itself, Conversations is another Aira brought to us through Katherine Silver. Her translation is beautifully composed in that I often forgot that I was reading a translation, and instead felt as if I were navigating Aira’s inner most thoughts at the point of their conception. What is particularly interesting about this translation is the premise of the text—each person can take a set of facts and interpret them differently based on their perception. So one is left to wonder whether this happened in the translation of the text from Spanish to English. I believe this question is exactly what Aira was going for, i.e., the reader should now perceive the world in a way that leaves them to question the thoughts and ideas they missed resulting in variations of interpretation. But, isn’t this inquiry an inherent byproduct of translation? “Everything is fiction. . . . Or: everything is reality. Which is the same thing.”

In closing, I agree with Owen Rowe’s statement, “An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept,” appearing in the last Three Percent Aira Review. Everyone has a lens through which he or she perceives the world and Aira expertly exploits this fact in each of his works.

18 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

I hear that soccer/football fans are pretty excited about Switzerland these days. (Sorry everyone, I haven’t been keeping up with the world of FIFA.) In a literary match-up against Honduras, though, its chance at a win feels a lot smaller. Neither country is really one of the literary world’s power-houses, but in this match Honduras brings to the table the potent prose of Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose Senselessness is pretty remarkable.

“I am not complete in the mind,” begins Moya’s narrator. And no, he most certainly is not: he is caustic, sex-obsessed, unstable, and at least a little bit insane. If you go with it, though, if you let his sentences pull you along for pages with their paranoid urgency, you’re in for a hell of a ride. He is an irritable, obsessive atheist who has gotten himself caught up in the affairs of the Catholic Church as it fights to bring to light the atrocities committed by the unnamed country’s power-hungry military. His rage and angst spiral into what he calls an “expanding maelstrom of paranoia.” And, whether you believe in his conspiracies or think he’s lost his mind, it’s very compelling. An excellent (and excellently unreliable) narrator, a great story and a satisfying ending: this is Moya’s hat-trick.

Now comes Switzerland, with Urs Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover. From the start, it looks grim. A melodramatic title and some pretty awful jacket copy leave me unenthused, but I’m willing to give it a chance. Which is my own mistake, really.
The narrator’s mother starts out the novel waist-deep in a lake, frantically shouting her lover’s name (“Edwin!”) across the water. Her former lover, once a poor musician and now the richest man in the country, lives in a mansion across the water and never even thinks about this woman, who he was involved with for a couple of months in his youth. She, on the other hand, obsesses over him, is possessed by the thought of him, hears the wind whisper his name to her all day long. I’d say that this is still a better love story than Twilight, except that a sad and confused woman who shrieks “Edw-!” into the empty night actually sounds an awful lot like Twilight. (I take full responsibility for the fact that, by bringing up the T-word, I am probably fulfilling the literary equivalent of Godwin’s law.) There’s some big, over-the-top Freudian thing going on here; her father is a taciturn, cantankerous control freak who treats her like dirt, and her lover is an insufferable egomaniac who also treats her like dirt. And I just can’t bring myself to care about any of it.

On top of this, the narrator speaks in this bizarre, inverted Yoda-speak (“Pushing and shoving they’d be to get to her,” and “flat as a pancake everywhere was”) and uses em-dashes in baffling and excessive ways.

Stylistic weirdnesses aside, My Mother’s Lover suffers from a lack of empathy. Moya’s characters are not likable (far from it, in fact), but I cared what happened to them. With Widmer’s, I didn’t. At all. And so this novel—supposed to be a tragedy of unrequited love across a backdrop of war and loss—fell flat.

The only major redeeming factor is Widmer’s harrowing and believable portrayal of the mother’s descent into madness. But it isn’t enough to make up for the huge gap in style, impact and appeal that separates it and Senselessness. Between the two, there’s no comparison. Honduras 3, Switzerland 0.

——

Hannah Chute translates literature from Russian and French. She is currently a master’s student in the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation Studies program. She is exceptionally bad at soccer.

——

Did Senselessness Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


5 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

June started a few days ago, which means that my rambling monthly overview of forthcoming translations is overdue. It also means that World Cup 2014 is about to start, which means that for the next month my brain will be as filled with soccer tactics and outcomes as literary ideas . . .

But sticking with the now: For the past two weeks, I’ve been on editorial trips to Estonia and Latvia. So rather than write up a post about forthcoming translations and a separate one about all the interesting stuff I’ve learned about in the Baltics, I thought I would “skin two bears with one trap” (from what I understand, this is the Estonian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone,” but a bit larger and darker . . . ) and merge my monthly overview with a bunch of observations and comments.

Since Estonia’s HeadRead Literary Festival and the Estonian Literature Centre were the main impetus behind this trip—they arranged for my flight over and back, all the accommodations, tons of great meetings with authors and other literary figures, etc.—I want to take a paragraph and just give some random shout-outs.

First off, Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem are two of the best people you could hire as representatives for your country’s literature. Always professional, super smart, incredibly helpful . . . Estonian literature wouldn’t be where it is today without those two. (And don’t laugh—I can name a half-dozen books that would win a couple rounds in the World Cup of Literature . . . if only Estonia’s actual football team wasn’t such shit.)

Also, the two translators who joined us—Matthew Hyde and Adam Cullen—are bloody brilliant and another reason I think we’re going to have access to more Estonian lit over the next few years. Adam recently translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio for Dalkey Archive, and is currently working on a mammoth book by Mihkel Mutt that should be out in late 2015.

Adam deserves another special shout-out for hanging out so much. He’s a great guy, with fantastic stories, and I really appreciated all the time he took showing me around, explaining things, drinking maybe too much with me at the amazing NoKu . . .

Same goes for Kaisa Kaer, who is probably best well known as the Estonian translator of the Harry Potter books. (See this entry in the Estonian Wikipedia.) She was there for the late nights at NoKu, but also showed me the part of Tallinn where Stalker was filmed. (Which is especially surreal during this white night period when it gets light way, way too early in the morning.)

Finally: All the other publishers on the trip—Gesche from Pushkin Press, Philip Gwyn Jones from Scribe, Frédéric Martin from Tripode, Artur from Piper, and Job from Prometheus—were all fantastic. I could write paragraphs about all the great things about each editors and his/her respective press . . .

I’ll get into some actual Estonian literature below, but for now, I just wanted to thank everyone who made this possible. OK, onto the books and the random shit.

La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books)

This is the third Saer book that we’re bringing out—we already have two more signed on though, so don’t worry—and it may well be the best. It is “grande,” yet a perfect introduction to Saer’s world, with characters from other books making an appearance, all the normal Saer themes being explored, and a shitload of wine being sold and consumed. It also was his final novel and feels a bit like a summing up. Great summer beach read!

For it’s size, Tallinn surely is a grand city. (See what I did there? Sorry, but after hearing foreign, unintelligible—to me at least—languages for the past couple weeks, my brain is responding with terrible puns [the other day I got into an elevator made by “Schindler” which quickly became “Schindler’s Lift”] and cheesy segues.) The Old City is such an interesting collection of very old buildings that are pretty well preserved . . . If ever there’s a city that deserves to be referred to as looking like a “fairy tale,” this one is it.

And while we were there, it was bustling with activity—the aforementioned HeadRead festival with its dozens of authors, a mini-festival of jazz music (which played very loudly over the opening ceremony of the HeadRead), and Olde Towne Days (I assume the “e“s are all supposed to be there), which was mostly people dressing up in Olde-Timey garb and doing crazy shit at the Town Hall, like playing horns out the windows and yelling “VIVA! VIVA!”



Leg over Leg, Volume 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)

One of the funniest parts of the Tallinn trip had to be our meals at Pegasus. Pegasus is a huge, beautiful restaurant that’s part of the Estonian Writers’ Union building. It’s a really great place, and one that was always completely empty when our group arrived for lunch. Without fail, the waitress would come up to the table and explain that due to “how busy the kitchen was” they had a limited menu today, and instead of the twenty or so delicious-sounding things on their menu, we’d have to choose between two starters, two entrees, and one dessert, and we must order everything right away, up front. None of this made any sense, but it made for a fun guessing game . . . “Do you think we’ll be able to get the chicken soup today?” “Nope, just the raw salad and the cheese plate.” “OH, ESTONIA!!!!!!”

The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions)

This was my first experience with the “White Nights” that impact most of Northern Europe. (And places like Iceland, which this book has fuck-all to do with.) That, mixed with the jet lag I’ve started to suffer in my oldering age, is really messing me up. It’s just disorienting to have the sun “set” at 10:30-11:00 at night, after which it will be “dark” for approximately two hours before the pre-dawn and official 4 am sunrise. Instead of curing my seasonal affective disorder (fuck you, winter!), it’s sort of driving me insane. I’ve been waking up most nights at 4:30 and having a hell of a time falling back asleep. But beyond that, my internal evening clock—where you can tell that you’ve been drinking long enough, it’s probably right around midnight given that the sun set a couple hours ago—is totally useless. I love these countries, but I don’t think I could live here . . . Not only would I never sleep in the summer, but the winters of no light would wreck my soul. You are all a strong people, which brings me to my next random observation . . .

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis)

Here in Riga, Latvia (which, contrary to Upstate New York beliefs is pronounced “Ree-ga,” not “RYE-ga”), we’re staying at a place on Lāčplēša iela (street). “Lāčplēsis” is the name of the most famous Latvian hero, a “bear-slayer” who “kills a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands.” According to Kaija—our resident Latvian and expert on bear slaying—a better translation of “Lāčplēsis” is “bear-ripper,” “the one who rips bears.” Although that didn’t work out so well against the Big Bear of Mother Russia, it’s best not to fuck with Latvians . . .

Plus, the bags Biblioasis gave out at BEA say “Ten Years of Fucking Amazing Books.” For that reason alone you should buy and read this.

Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Martin E. Weir (Melville House Books)

This entry is a three-parter: First off, I really loved Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch. And although I was less into The Colonel, which got a ton of critical acclaim, I can’t wait to get my hands on this novel about the Iran-Iraq conflict and a journalist asked to fabricate a story to demoralize Iranian soldiers. One interesting note: Dowlatabadi has also written a 10-volume, 3,000-page saga about a Kurdish family. Melville should do this and bill him as the Iranian Knausgaard.

Speaking of thirst (again, apologize for my awful segues), the topic of alcoholism came up a number of times in our meetings with Estonian writers. It was most bluntly—and bleakly—presented in the talk with Peeter Sauter. He was reluctant to talk directly about the novel his was “pitching,” so instead he told us a bunch of stories about his life, other writers, Estonia in general. But then things took a turn . . . “When I got divorced, I got mad. I went around town attacking women . . . drunk. I knew this was a bad thing.” Amid the boozing and depression, he met a woman, and they started a relationship. Around that time, Peeter’s twenty-something son came to live with him. Then, suddenly, soul-crushingly, died of a heart attack. Peeter’s new book is about that.

And speaking of alcoholism, if you haven’t been watching Legit, the Jim Jeffries vehicle on FXX, you must. Not only is it a very funny show—a lot of it is laugh till you hurt funny in that way that mixes situational comedy with the sharp perceptions of a stand-up comedian at the top of his game—but over the course of its two seasons, it’s gotten real. It always had an undercurrent of emotional intensity—one of the main characters has MD and is paralyzed—but the second season is a heart-wrenching (to the point I can barely watch) depiction of alcoholism and how much it can ruin your life. Calling something “dark” is totally cliched, but that’s the best word for Legit. It’s a show that hurts in all of the best ways and way more people should be watching it.

Conversations by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

Although I’m only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked more about Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio with people than any other book I’ve read in the past couple years. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m reading it at the exact perfect time—it’s all about Estonia and Livonian history and culture, and I keep running into things referenced in the book—but there’s something to the narrator’s voice that makes this an incredibly easy book to get into and inhabit. Basically, it’s one man’s recounting of his relationship with a famous Estonian singer. Not necessarily a sexual relationship—he’s gay, she’s married—but there is a sort of sorting out on his behalf of how a woman like this, one from humble Estonian origins but converted into an East European diva, is wedded to his own self-perceptions, especially as an Estonian who’s been living in the great metropolis of Paris. It’s a brilliant book and a great entryway to Baltic literature.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)

Given the fact that this novel has received some truly mixed reviews, and sounds to me like a pop book constructed of well-worn elements of a different age, this seems like the perfect place to talk about music in Eastern Europe. One of my long-running jokes is that Bon Jovi (and Guns ‘n’ Roses) exist only for Eastern European radio stations. This is a harsh truth: traditionally, the pop stations in this part of the world play some really trashy American crap. The 80s never left the Soviet Bloc!

I’ve been pleasantly surprised in our visits to the local cafes here in Riga. For the most part they all have been playing indie rock circa 2012—Foster the People, Grimes, Dirty Projectors—which is both a relief and a disappointment. (We’ve heard some Latvian rock, but mostly stuff that’s more classic.) That said, on the drive home from Open Letter author Inga Ābele’s gorgeous estate we heard “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. That’s more like it, Latvija!

(Of course, the Spin Doctors played the largest festival in Rochester last year . . . Because Rochester, NY is basically Eastern Europe—always twenty years behind the time. BOOM.)

Tonight we are going to Ala, a great bar with amazing live culture beer, to listen to folk songs and karaoke. I already know how this ends.

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random House)

Inga Ābele lives in one of the most relaxing, amazing estates I’ve ever been privileged to visit. I say “estate,” because there’s a very gorgeous modern house surrounded by three other barns and guest houses, including one that was built like a thousand years ago or something. Plus, they have a sauna next to a little pond and are only a short walk through the woods to a spring with pure, cool water. There are ostriches nearby. And peacocks. And a billion mosquitos.

While walking to the springs I stopped to read a bunch of the little signposts printed in English. Most all of them were about local flora and fauna—including some very rare ants that creeped me out—and were written in janky almost-English. “It is for the sprouting times!” Also, every single one ended with the phrase “PLANT IS SOMEWHAT POISONOUS!” in ALL-CAPS and bold.

I have so many questions about this . . . First off, the pictures on these signs made exactly none of these plant recognizable, and based on where the signs were posted, you may well have been trekking through the “SOMEWHAT POISONOUS” plant just to read about how it may poison you. Also, “somewhat”? The hell does that indicate? Like rashy poisonous or eat-it-and-die poisonous? And poisonous to what and/or whom? Birds? People? SO MANY QUESTIONS, LATVIAN SIGN WRITER!

The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Black Cat)

I talked about this book on an upcoming podcast and it really might be the summer title that I’m most looking forward to. It’s also an appropriate title under which to include the story of the Riga Cat House.

The real story of this cat can be found on Wikipedia with a simple search, but I want to relay Kaija’s slightly embellished version (further embellished by me).

Way back in the middle ages of Latvia—aka the early 1900s—two businessmen got in a huge fight. One lied to the other, the other corrupted the first one’s daughter, there were more lawsuits more complicated than those found in Bleak House, both businessmen wanted the other totally destroyed—it was like a cold war of the merchant class. As a final effort to irritate Businessman A, the other businessman, knowing how much Businessman A hated the “filthy” cats that populate the Old Town of Riga, put a statue of a pissed off, about to poop cat on top of one of his turrets and aimed the cat’s asshole right at the other businessman’s window. This was like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Businessman A went totally insane, petitioning the city council to make Businessman B turn the asshole away from his window . . . “It’s just a cat!” “It’s a cat that wants to poop on me and suck out my soul! Filthy cats!” Eventually, Businessman A’s house burnt down, he died, and, out of a crippling karmic fear, Businessman B turned the cat around so it could shit on his own house, then he went and hid in the countryside and was never heard from again.

Now they sell shirts and coffee mugs and reproductions of the pooping cat. And as legend has it, if you drink Black Balsam (a regional herbal liquor that’s both kind of gross and kind of amazing, and which loosely translates as “Witches Brew”) under a full moon out of a pooping cat shot glass, you can control the mind of the Russian nearest to you. So, that. Rock on, Livonia!

That’s it for now. Enjoy June with all its sun, soccer, and books!

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Owen Rowe on The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernai, translated by Katherine Silver, and out from New Directions.

Owen (Matt) Rowe is a writer, editor, and translator (from Portuguese and Italian) based in Port Townsend, Washington. Stay tuned for his upcoming transformations into bookseller and audiobook entrepreneur. This is technically the first of two reviews (hence the Aira reference in the first paragraph), and Owen’s Shantytown review will run Saturday or Monday to keep it all groovy and together. But for now, here’s the beginning of the Bernai half of things:

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

For the rest of this first part, go here.

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

Filiberto García is Bernal’s antihero, a ready-to-retire police detective who’s never quite broken out of low-level cleanup (i.e. killing) assignments for one corrupt government department or another. The KGB, in Mongolia, has heard rumors of a Chinese conspiracy to assassinate the US president on his upcoming trip to Mexico City. The Americans and Russians both send agents to uncover the plot, and García is assigned to be their local guide. Or as he puts it, “Now I’ve been promoted to the Department of International Intrigue. Holy shit!” The world-weary government thug thus finds himself called out day and night to try to pick apart the threads of a delicate geopolitical clusterfuck. Meanwhile, he’s made his first emotional connection since forever with Marta, a girl from Chinatown who may herself be implicated in the plots and counterplots—but to sleep with her, he’ll first have to get a chance to sleep at all.

There are some fantastic set pieces, like the conversation where the Russian and the American compare memories of the coups and conspiracies they’ve staged around the world, while the Mexican listens on in envy—he’s only ever been involved in home-brewed trouble. The Russian asks, “An electrical cord is very effective. Don’t you think so, Filiberto?” and that sends García into a reverie worthy of Sam Peckinpah:

It was in Huasteca, and I was carrying out orders. Puny old devil who spent the whole day in his rocking chair on the porch of his house. The Boss gave the order. I came up behind him with the cord. . . . When he stopped moving, I put him in a coffin we had brought, and we took the main road out of town. The best way to carry a body discreetly is in a coffin. A laborer coming down the road with his oxen even doffed his hat when he saw it. Then, suddenly, as we turned a corner, the fucking old man started kicking. Like he wanted someone to notice. We had to lower the coffin, open it, and give him another squeeze with the same cord. Fucking rowdy old man!

Francisco Goldman, in his Introduction, says “the real action [of The Mongolian Conspiracy] springs from its language.” The narrative often slips directly inside García’s thoughts as he tries to piece together a moral stance from the shit surrounding him. Like the distinction between mere “stiffs” and a real “corpse” (the kind of body that might once have harbored a soul): “Fucking stiffs! You don’t only have to make them, you’ve also got to carry them as if they were children.” The old killer begins to suspect he has a heart after all. Or worry that he’s had one all along.

But Bernal’s García doesn’t quite hang together as a voice, for all his vigorous cursing. The language stumbles from the stiff and formal to tough-guy talk that would make Philip Marlowe blush, without (to my ear) settling into a vernacular consistent and believable for the time and setting. I don’t fault translator Katherine Silver—I’ve seen her skill at a remarkable range of registers in other works—so I wonder whether Bernal was just a little out of his depth. It must have been a tough assignment, an insider-turned-outsider inventing a language for someone who is just crossing that line himself. There’s no doubting why its plot and characters make it a “revered cult masterpiece,” but forty-five years later the lasting punch of The Mongolian Conspiracy may be not in its own language, but in the language it paved the way for, from Roberto Bolaño to Álvaro Enrigue and . . . “César Aira“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=9592.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Emily Davis on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the most recent Aira book to come out from New Directions, and which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation, and for her thesis she translated Damián Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography, which we hopefully will be publishing in the not-too-distant future.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog isn’t already familiar with César Aira. New Directions has published seven of his books, including Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Literary Conference, and How I Became a Nun. And this is just a fraction of Aira’s incredible output—he’s published more than 50 works, including 2-4 every year since 1993. (According to Wikipedia, the World’s Finest Information Source.)

Here’s the opening of Emily’s review:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

Click here to read the review in its entirety.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is hard to summarize. The most I can do is set it up: Dr. Aira has the power to perform miracle cures, and everyone knows it. His power is legendary. The hospital chief is constantly developing elaborate traps designed to trick Dr. Aira into performing a miracle cure on command, and Dr. Aira tries his best to avoid these tricks. Dr. Aira is also a sleepwalker, or rather, to use the words of the novel itself:

He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same.

On one such morning, Dr. Aira finds himself talking to a Lebanon cedar, delivering a rather deep philosophical monologue about humanity and its position on the planet and its relationship to Nature, when suddenly he pauses and adds:

Of course I am personalizing this quite perversely, reifying and externalizing forces that exist within us, but it doesn’t matter because I understand myself.

This is not only a comment that might make a frequent Aira reader laugh (“you might not have a clue what I’m trying to say here, but rest assured that at least I get it”), it’s also an indicator of one aspect of Aira’s writing style. Here, and in his books in general, Aira is a master of using high-register vocabulary in a matter-of-fact way. Why mention sleepwalking when he can easily fold in somnambulism instead? That his character is talking to a tree, like a madman? Why not seamlessly incorporate a word like reifying?

Of course, we ought to remember that Aira writes in Spanish, and this sort of styling—in particular, a stylistic trait that depends on certain vocabularies—does not simply transfer from one language to another on its own. That’s the work of a skilled translator, and here as ever, Katherine Silver does not disappoint. I can only imagine the feat it must be to translate Aira; nonetheless, The Miracle Cures is remarkably smooth while remaining anything but flat.

The final scene of The Miracle Cures is the most lively, most visually interesting, most mentally engaging of the entire book. Unfortunately, the ending itself is disappointing. Without giving it away—here I am going into abstractions myself—the ending does make the opening scene make a little more sense, but it doesn’t quite connect enough of the dots. I don’t expect all the dots to be connected—Aira usually leaves a few disconnects—but I just get the feeling he could have done more with this one. It just falls, and not enough in the “oh, this makes a lot of Aira-sense” direction. There seems to be a little too much truth to the narrator’s comment as Dr. Aira is wrapping up his actions in the final scene:

As often happens with difficult jobs, a point came when the only thing that mattered was to finish. He almost lost interest in the results, because the result that included all the others was to finish what he had started.

26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I first read Almost Never by Daniel Sada, I thought it was a lock to be a finalist for the 2013 BTBA. It’s a strange book that’s basically 328 pages of foreplay ending with three pages of this:

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Ecstasy-sex. Sinking-in-sex. Sex that shapes. Sex that sparkles.

Yes, once again I’ve decided to highlight a sex book that I thought would make the BTBA longlist.



But Almost Never is more than a book about a man obsessed with sex—it’s a stylistic masterpiece that’s incredibly intricate, unlike anything I’ve read, and exquisitely translated by Katherine Silver.

I don’t have a lot of time to write all the things I’d like to say about this book, but I do want to point out my favorite part of the opening chapter:

Now comes a description of Demetrio’s job: his workday went from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon, sometimes six, more infrequently seven.

That’s it. Nothing about what he actually does (at this point), just the time he spends there. Which is so wonderfully telling for this particular character.

Quickly: Sada is considered by many to be one of the greatest contemporary writers to come out of Mexico, was praised by Bolaño, and his novel Porque Parece Mentira la Verdad Nunca se Sabe is considered to be untranslatable. (According to Rachel Nolan of the New York Times it really does sound pretty daunting, what with its “650 pages, 90 characters and use of archaic metric forms like alexandrines, hendecasyllables and octosyllables.”)

Katherine Silver actually received an NEA Translation Fellowship to work on more Sada, so hopefully there will be additional books of his to consider for future BTBA awards . . .

5 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Scott Esposito’s been on about Daniel Sada for a while now, and I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about his work, especially the “Joycean,” “Rabelaisian,” novel Almost Never, which wont he prestigious Herralde Prize for Fiction, and which Graywolf is bringing in April in Katherine Silver’s translation. Yes, April. 2012.

Well, to my grand surprise, a galley arrived here this morning:

Here’s a description:

This Rabelaisian tale of lust and longing in the drier precincts of postwar Mexico introduces one of Latin America’s most admired writers to the English-speaking world.

Demetrio Sordo is an agronomist who passes his days in a dull but remunerative job at a ranch near Oaxaca. It is 1945, World War II has just ended, but those bloody events have had no impact on a country that is only on the cusp of industrializing. One day, more bored than usual, Demetrio visits a bordello in search of a libidinous solution to his malaise. There he begins an all-consuming and, all things considered, perfectly satisfying relationship with a prostitute named Mireya.

A letter from his mother interrupts Demetrio’s debauched idyll: she asks him to return home to northern Mexico to accompany her to a wedding in a small town on the edge of the desert. Much to his mother’s delight, he meets the beautiful and virginal Renata and quickly falls in love—a most proper kind of love.

Back in Oaxaca, Demetrio is torn, the poor cad. Naturally he tries to maintain both relationships, continuing to frolic with Mireya and beginning a chaste correspondence with Renata. But Mireya has problems of her own—boredom is not among them—and concocts a story that she hopes will help her escape from the bordello and compel Demetrio to marry her. Almost Never is a brilliant send-up of Latin American machismo that also evokes a Mexico on the verge of dramatic change.

But what’s really exciting about this—and the reason why I’m going to read this as soon as I’ve fulfilled all my other reading obligations—is the prose itself. Check the opening:

Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied, ambiguous sex, as a game that baffles then enlightens then baffles again; pretense-sex, see-through-sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life lived. Conjectures cut short during a walk on a pale afternoon. Block after block, ascending, then descending. A strain in the step as well as the mind. The subject was one Demetrio Sordo, tall and thin, almost thirty, fond of the countryside wehre he plied his trade with a modicum of pleasure, but for recreation: what thrills? Nightly games of dominoes in seedy dives, and those strolls—few and quite dull—of a mere mile or two; or a cup of coffee in the evening, always solitary and perfectly pointless; or the penning of letters to known but already ghostly beings. Hence a rut, and—what should he do?: think, already anticipating certainties and doubts: lots of naysaying, and more reshuffling, all of which helped him find the spark he’d been lacking without taxing his brain on that overcast afternoon. Sex was the most obvious option, but the trick would be to do it every twenty-four hours. If only! A worthy disbursement, indeed. So that very night the agronomist went looking for a brothel.

You can pre-order your copy now . . . Also worth noting that this is part of Graywolf’s Lannan Translation Series, a collection of books in translation sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. This series includes Per Petterson, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Bernardo Atxaga, and many others.

10 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Contemporary Latin American literature in translation abounds with words of posthumous support from Roberto Bolaño, a blurber par excellence for a generation of writers only now being ushered into the Anglo-American canon, in some cases two decades after first being published.

The mild absurdity of this gold standard, against which the works of many of his contemporaries are set, is hardly lost on his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya, who wrote a 2009 article for Argentina’s La Nacion, “Bolaño Inc.,” that began: “I told myself I wasn’t going to write or say anything more about Roberto Bolaño.”

Bolaño, for his part, wrote, or perhaps said, one of the more salient and lingering points one could make about Castellanos Moya calling him: “The only writer of my generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time.”

The praise, like most pithy promotional quotes, is perhaps an overstatement, but hardly an invalid one, as Castellanos Moya’s excellent new creation, Tyrant Memory makes clear.

Set over the course of one month in 1944, with a concluding chapter taking place twenty nine years later, the novel’s backdrop is the failed military coup against Salvadoran President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a sympathizer of European Fascism and casual mystic whose legacy of human rights abuses is frequently recounted by way of his assertion that it is better to kill a man than to kill an ant. The man will be reincarnated, the ant won’t.

The novel—which, it should be noted, is set during the nascent days of Latin America’s “secret Vietnam”—opens with the diary entries of Haydée, a housewife whose husband Pericles, a political journalist, has just been imprisoned for writing an article criticizing the government of Martinez, or as he is more commonly referred to throughout the novel, the Warlock. It is the eve of an anticipated coup and Haydée is certain that the impending fall of the Warlock will ensure her husband’s safe return. Instead the failed attempt on his life leaves her family in shambles, in large part to due her bumbling eldest son Clemens, who prematurely announces the Warlock’s death on national radio. Needless to say, Clemens is very soon public enemy number one.

The novel is built on two alternating narratives, moving from Haydée’s chatty diary entries to a far more streamlined, and slapstick, account of Clemens going into hiding. This pairing can read as a warped sort of he-said-she-said, whereby no one actually knows what anyone said. Both narratives are so thoroughly built upon hearsay, gossip and speculation that each serves as a highly adulterated, though hardly unfulfilling, accompaniment to the other.

Haydée, who remains in San Salvador after the failed coup, becomes active in organizing protests on behalf of the Committee of the Families of Political Prisoners. Together with several other women, the wives and mothers of prisoners, she participates in a thwarted street protest that ends with gunfire and becomes increasingly active in a clandestine network of citizens planning a general nationwide strike.

Clemens and his cousin Jimmy meanwhile are on the run from the National Guard, who have begun capturing and assassinating anyone complicit in the coup. Together the pair leaves the city shortly after Holy Week. Disguised as a priest and sacristan they make their way to the home of a man named Mono Harris, an American of unspecified profession who has access to airplanes, arms and a few leaked bits of military intelligence.

There are several American characters in Tyrant Memory, not least of which is Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who is known only by name, and his Yankee government and air force are popularly considered the only hope ending the Warlock’s tenure. Their presence in the region is taken for granted as a source of arms and military training and their influence on the Martinez administration, historically an easy proxy in efforts to staunch any semblance of communism in Central America, proves a vital source of life support.

Castellanos Moya is an especially adept writer of dialogue and stream of consciousness narration, and this skill is put to good use in Haydée’s diary entries as she recounts, if not quite the facts, then a certain colloquial spread of information and interpretation, for example rumors of U.S. intervention.

The day began with excellent news. Mingo dropped by the house to find out how Pericles is doing, and he took the opportunity to tell me that the Americans have already firmly turned their back on the general, yesterday the ambassador rejected the government’s proposal for the United States to send officers to reorganize the air forces, which was virtually dismantled after the attempted coup. “Such a rejection means they’ve lost all trust in the government,” Mingo explained to me with great excitement. I went straight to Father with the news. He told me he’d speak with Uncle Charlie to confirm. By noon everybody had heard that “the man” is being left out in the cold.

In the voice and words of Haydée, Castellanos Moya is able to nearly erase his presence as author. The narration is so casual it is almost audible, and revelatory in a manner that seems believably incidental, which, of course it is not. Castellanos Moya’s greatest triumph as a fiction writer is to recreate the daily ambiance of life at the margins of crisis. Though his novels often draw on political circumstance, they are not blindly or overtly concerned with the mechanics of politics.

Tyrant Memory is a novel about impression and interpretation, about the reading of an ambiguous reality, a reality that is distinctly Latin American, if one is inclined to heed Bolaño. Castellanos Moya’s fiction could be described as surreal, but only because reality is always so close but always unreadable: an eye test readers and characters likely fail before being told they need glasses they can’t afford.

This is an impressive affect for an author to replicate, and even more so to replicate more than once. Previous novels published in English by New Directions (Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror) and Canada’s Biblioasis (Dance with Snakes) bear the distinction of narrators with untrustworthy relationships to discernable, factual life. Together the novels cover a territory that range from the lucid and disturbing—the mass murder of an indigenous population in Senselessness—to the truly bizarre—a transient’s sexual relationship with five talking female snakes in Dance with Snakes.

Castellanos Moya’s narrators share a removed position on the periphery of their respective social circumstances, which is pretty apt coming from a writer who has lived much of his adult life in exile. Haydée, as a woman, is excluded from the realm of politics that has consumed her family. Deeply aware of her loss, she is never quite certain of what that emptiness entails, as when a friend asks for news of Clemens.

She wanted to know if I had heard anything she hadn’t. I told her the men in my family and Pericles’s family share the opinion that life-and-death secrets should not be shared with women, so I was totally in the dark. I returned home even more unsettled, and still now, after writing down all the events of the day, anxiety is gnawing away at me inside, as if something important were happening right next to me without my being aware.

Haydée’s diary, for all its impressionistic qualities, is not always engaging. Which may in fact be further proof of Castellanos Moya’s skill as a ventriloquist as he guides us through the subtle development of his character. The entries begin with an intimate jumble of names, relations and social engagements, the details of which can be easily lost, and at perhaps little cost. But by the novel’s end Haydée’s involvement with political action has increased and become more deliberate, more compelling.

The sections devoted to Clemens and Jimmy are told at more of a distance as the dimwitted Clemens provokes the ire of his cousin. Their buffoonery—Clemens is always on the verge of messing everything up as he lets a love of booze and his libido get in the way of every near escape—is at times a welcome respite from the steady, and sometimes overwhelming, hum of Haydée’s note taking.

This mosquito-in-the-ear quality, annoying though it can become, is hardly without foresight or merit, because it ultimately proves a far more insightful impression of a period in El Salvador’s history, than the military men’s antics.

As the husband of one of Haydée’s friends puts it to her, government ministers are “afraid of what people will do to them if the general is toppled, so they send their wives out to spread rumors about them wanting to resign, but once they’re face-to-face with the Warlock they start shaking in their boots.”

The final chapter, which takes place during one day in 1973, is narrated by the husband of Haydée’s best friend, a man named Chelón who has until now been a peripheral but constant presence. It is worth noting that it is only here, in the last fifty pages of the novel, that the reader’s given a physical description of Haydée and told the full details of her life. Neither are especially remarkable, save for the fact that in the absence of these typically requisite details, Haydée has managed to become a fully formed character with her isolated voice alone.

Which makes it all the more disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, when Chelón dismisses Haydée as “a woman from a conservative family who doesn’t fully understand her husband’s decisions . . .” Fair enough, but this slight begs the question—to what extent does that matter when she is the one narrating the fallout?

Castellanos Moya can be a brilliant practitioner of edge of collapse, culling searing narratives of exile and estrangement. Tyrant Memory can be a tiring novel, and it is not always a lucid one, but these attributes may in fact be the greatest of its many achievements. Because inherent to the fog of tyranny is an opaque and exhausting search for information and answers, for the elusive logic behind fickle oppression. Readers are well served with Castellanos Moya as a guide.

9 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just posted an interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya about Tyrant Memory:

Chad W. Post: How does Tyrant Memory compare to the other works of yours that have been translated into English? It seems to revolve around similar political themes.

Horacio Castellanos Moya: Tyrant Memory belongs to a group of novels that deal with members of the Aragon family. And indeed, through the personal and family problems of these characters, you can grasp some intense historical moments in Central America. This is the first of that group of novels that has been translated into English.

One difference between Tyrant Memory and the other three works of mine that have been translated into English is that most of Tyrant Memory doesn’t take place in contemporary El Salvador, but in April and May of 1944, when there was a failed military coup d’etat and then a successful general strike to put and end to a 12-year dictatorship. Politics is all around, of course, but you see it through the eyes of a conservative, catholic, 44-year old lady, and to be more precise, through her diary, where she writes down whatever happens to her since her husband was put in jail for being a journalist who supports the opposition. And this is another difference: the main characters of the other three novels are a little bit out of their minds, deeply affected by violence; in Tyrant Memory, Haydee (the main character) is ruled by common sense and strong moral principals.

CWP: “Ruled by common sense”? This seems like a sharp diversion from the (justifiably) paranoid narrator of Senselessness, or the crazed protagonist killer in Dance with Snakes, or even Laura Rivera from She-Devil. How did you like writing a (somewhat?) sane character?

HCM: It was a challenge. I had to dig deep in myself in order to grasp the mentality and the voices of those conservative, common-sensed ladies that I have met along my life. The challenge was to do it without bias, trying to see the world through their eyes. Once I got the voice, it demanded me a lot of control to keep it. It was exhausting, but I enjoyed it.

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

6 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on my last post, it’s a pleasure to announce that the first Read This Next selection is Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory, which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver and available later this month from New Directions.

I’ve been a fan of Horacio’s ever since I read Senselessness, an absolutely stunning book about a man hired to edit a 1,100-page report of the atrocities committed by the military against the indigenous population. It’s haunting and beautiful and tight and paranoid. (See this review for more detailed info.)

Since that time, Biblioasis published his novel Dance with Snakes and New Directions did She-Devil in the Mirror. Although Senseless still stands supreme in my mind, both of those books are extremely interesting and cemented Horacio’s reputation as one of today’s most exciting and talented authors.

So when we decided to create Read This Next it seemed absolutely perfect to kick things off with Horacio’s new book, Tyrant Memory. This novel is a bit different than the others that have come out in English translation, mostly because it features three different narrators and styles. (The other three books are all first-person narratives.) It’s a “bigger” book in some senses, seeing that it deals with the coup and strike that lead to the overthrow of the Warlock, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in 1944.

Here’s New Direction’s jacket copy:

The tyrant of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s ambitious new novel is the actual pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernández Martínez — known as the Warlock — who came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydée Aragon, is a well-off woman, whose husband is a political prisoner and whose son, Clemente, after prematurely announcing the dictator’s death over national radio during the failed coup, is forced to flee when the very much alive Warlock starts to ruthlessly hunt down his enemies. The novel moves between Haydée’s political awakening in diary entries and Clemente’s frantic and often hysterically comic efforts to escape capture. Tyrant Memory — sharp, grotesque, moving, and often hilariously funny — is an unforgettable incarnation of a country’s history in the destiny of one family.

You can access the online preview of Tyrant Memory by clicking here, and you can purchase the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and Powell’s at those links.

Enjoy!

2 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Very excited to share the news that Andrew Barrett — a former Open Letter intern and U of R Translation Student who has written for Three Percent on a few occasions — was the only U.S. student to be chosen to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre’s annual summer program. I could go on and on about how cool this is, how awesome Andrew is, how our MALTS program obviously kicks national and international ass, but instead I’ll let the U of R’s official press release do some of that for me.

From the U of R Communications Office:

Andrew Barrett, a graduate student in the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation program, is the only student from the United States selected to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre’s annual summer translation program.

The Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC) is the only international residency program for literary translators in North America. The primary focus of the program is to provide literary translators with a period of uninterrupted work on a current project, within an international community of translators. Each year, BILTC accepts one student from each of its signatory countries—Canada, Mexico, and the United States—as well as 15 translators, up to nine writers, and at least three consulting translators. Since the inaugural program in 2003, Banff only accepts 10 translators each summer, which includes three students. BILTC has hosted translators from more than 21 countries working in more than 30 language combinations.

“We had many high-level student applications this year, and his application, especially the sample of the translation he is working on, was truly extraordinary,” said Katherine Silver, co-director of BILTC. During the program, Barrett, who translates from ancient Greek, will complete his translation of portions of the Dionysiaca, a 48-book epic poem written in the 5th century by Nonnus. “The first time I picked up the Dionysiaca, the virtues of the poem jumped out at me. It’s vivid, wild, playfully self-aware and an absolute treasure-trove of Greek mythology,” said Barrett.

Professor, translator, and renowned poet Anne Carson, whose work frequently draws from Greek mythology, will be this summer’s special guest writer, and prize-winning translator Peter Constantine, who also works with ancient Greek, will be a consulting translator in residence.

Barrett began Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation program, or MALTS, after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classics from Wayne State University, in Detroit, Mich., where he also taught Greek mythology. A member of the first MALTS class, Barrett said he was attracted to the translation program’s treatment of translation “as a fine literary art.” As part of the program, Barrett has interned at Open Letter Books, Rochester’s literary publishing house, which publishes a dozen international authors’ works each year. “Working at Open Letter is a direct line into the publishing world,” said Barrett, who added, “The act of translation and the light it sheds on the tangled intersections of culture, language, and thought, can provide very potent opportunities to genuinely appreciate the complexity of different societies, even those societies that no longer exist.”

“This is a very impressive achievement for Andrew and we are proud to have a student from our program’s inaugural class chosen for this international honor,” said Chad Post, co-advisor for MALTS and director of Open Letter Books.

The MALTS program includes classes in literary translation, literary theory, and international literatures, as well as a book-length translation project. Students in both MALTS and the University’s undergraduate and graduate-level certificate programs have the opportunity to work with Open Letter Books, Rochester’s publishing house for literature in translation, and Three Percent, an online resource for international literature. For more information about translation at Rochester, click here..

3 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today we look at the lastest from Cesar Aira—an annual BTBA author—in a piece written by an extrapolation of my 15-year-old self.

The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 90

Why It Should Win: Cesar Aira is due (last year’s Ghosts was a finalist); Katherine Silver is due (two years ago, her translation of Senselessness was a finalist); Spanish language is due (in the past three years, nine Spanish titles have been finalists, but none have won); mad scientists are “in”

When I was a kid, I loved comic books. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, whatever. I still have two huge boxes of comics that represent every dime (and then some) that I earned during my summer jobs, working on golf courses and being pelted by balls from uppity country club members who were better at investments and hostile takeovers than actually golfing. And every time, while digging a sandtrap, a ball narrowly missed me, I wished I had superhero powers so that I could eradicate whatever polo-wearing d-bag just “forgot” to yell “FORE!” I wanted to go all Psylocke on them. Or web them to a tree. Something juvenile, and something more akin to the motivations of the supervillains found in comics than the upstanding, moral superheroes. Cause the bad guys are always more fun.

In addition to the cult of collecting (also loved baseball cards, but that’s a different post), one of the things I loved about comics was the nature of the storytelling. Obviously, none of the comics I read (save maybe The Invisibles) was anywhere near literary, but there was something intriguing and compelling about how the serial storytelling had to work . . . Every reader already knew the comic formula, especially in the 1980s—bad guy tries to take over world, good guy nearly loses, good guy prevails—and it was the goal of the comic writer to vary this in a way that made you want to pick up the next month’s issue. (It was almost Oulipian in its constraints.) There had to be cliffhangers, the planting of seeds of future storylines, etc., etc.

But to be honest—in a maybe dark sort of self-punishing way—what I kept reading for was the idea that one time the bad guy would win. The mad scientist maybe wouldn’t take over the world, but would off at least one minor superhero. If nothing was at stake, if nothing terrible could happen to a character in this imaginary world, than everything I had wasted money and hours on meant exactly nothing.

Which is why The Literary Conference is so cool: it’s about a literary translator turned mad scientist

So, once upon a time . . . an Argentinean scientist conducted experiments in the cloning of cells, organs, and limbs, and achieved the ability to reproduce, at will, whole individuals in indefinite quantities. First, he worked with insects, then higher animals, and finally human beings. His success did not vary, though as he approached human beings the nature of the clones subtly changes; they became non-similar clones. He overcame his disappointment with this variation by telling himself that in the final analysis the perception of similarity is quite subjective and always questionable. He had no doubt, however, that his clones were genuine, legions of the Ones whose numbers he could multiply as often as he wished.

At this point he reached an impasse and found himself unable to proceed toward his final goal, which was nothing less than world domination. In this respect he was the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books. He was incapable of setting a more modest goal for himself; at his level, it simply wouldn’t have been worth his while.

And how is the narrator/translator/mad scientist going to take over the world? By cloning Carlos Fuentes.

So yeah, on one level The Literary Conference is an absurd book, one that ends with huge blue worms descending from the mountains, and our mad scientist turned hero being put in a position to possibly save the day and get the girl.

But to draw out this out a bit more . . . The way Aira builds to this point is so mesmerizing that it’s as if he does have superpowers. His narrator’s tone and way of explaining his goals and ideas (the bit about a person’s uniqueness being constructed from the specific books one has read is brilliant, as is the section on “cerebral hyperactivity”) is spectacular, and Katie did a marvelous job rendering these rhythms and peculiar word choices in English.

In constructing this strange world of clones and world domination, there are hints of something larger, of this all being a crafty metaphor. The main character is named Cesar, who is also a writer of strange, metaphorical works. The idea of clones, of cloning Fuentes, of Aira’s insane literary production (he’s written more than 50 books), of writing unique books, of taking over the world . . . Reading this, I felt there was something more going beneath the comic book surface. That there was a sort of secret plot at the center of this book on secret plots. Or maybe that’s my comic book loving 15-year-old self getting the better of me.

8 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 9 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today we’re looking at Uruguayan author Andres Ressia Colino, whose “Scenes from a Comfortable Life” was translated by Katherine Silver.

We haven’t talked about this much, but the breakdown of authors included in the Granta special issue is pretty heavily weighted toward Spain and Argentina. To be exact, of the 22 authors included, 8 are from Argentina, 6 from Spain, 2 from both Chile and Peru, and 1 a piece from Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, and Uruguay. I’m not sure this necessarily means anything, but it’s kind of interesting to notice and to speculate about. (My momentary theory: The vast number of independent small presses in Buenos Aires have helped continue the long, vibrant literary tradition in Argentina. And Spain is just pretty. With lots of interesting things to write about.)

During our Twitter Party last week, there was a bit of conversation about whether to look at authors as belonging to a tradition based on their country or on their language. (Personally, I think authors belong more to a stylistic tradition that is built out of influences from all over the globe, in translation, in their native language, with time delays, coincidences, etc. This is why I like The Delighted States so much.)

I’m not particularly well versed in Uruguayan literature—although I am a huge fan of Juan Carlos Onetti—but reading this piece by Andres Ressia Colino reinforces the belief that literature is not bound by territory. It’s true that some pieces may be more focused on local politics than others, but the way these stories are told (the most important aspect, in my opinion) isn’t necessarily local.

Before excerpting Colino’s work, here’s a set-up from a piece on Granta‘s website by Ben Rice:

The fathers of girlfriends, or wives, are always interesting for male writers. Why? Because they offer a tantalizing and often disturbing insight into what we ourselves might become down the track.

And they seem always to be in a position of power. This is because of their age, their experience and because they have something over us: they have long ago committed to and experienced a long-term relationship with a woman who is a genetic prototype of our own partners. They have been where we have yet to go. [. . .]

In his story “Scenes from a Comfortable Life,” Andrés Ressia Colino explores the ‘meet the parents’ formula. It’s familiar territory, but Colino handles it with originality and subtlety. The father knows exactly what it is to be in the role of the young suitor. And the young man knows he knows. And as the men tinker with cars in the garage, and charge a battery, they are not just male-bonding but partaking in a primitive and rather disturbing ritual.

And here’s the opening section of “Scenes from a Comfortable Life”:

Family Matters

It was on a Sunday afternoon in spring, a family lunch at the house in Carrasco. The servant is clearing up the coffee cups under the watchful gaze of Isabela, Virna’s svelte mother. Bruno, her hefty Teutonic father, interrupts the conversation and turns to me: How would you like to drive the Peugeot? It’s a little old but . . . I hesitate, am astonished, like a child who’s just watched a magic trick he doesn’t understand, as Virna smiles at me, made happy, or rather intrigued, by her father’s noble gesture, and she tries to encourage me to say yes. Moments later we are in the garden watching as the garage door rises and rolls up slowly. We wait a few seconds until Bruno drives out in a white Land Rover Discovery, parks on the side of the driveway, gets out, smiles at us and returns to the garage. Then he brings out an aqua-blue Mercedes-Benz C250. He parks it next to the Discovery and on his way back to the garage motions enthusiastically for me to come join him. Between the two of us, we bring out a blue Yamaha 1800 jet ski on its own trailer, a Zodiac-style inflatable boat and a heavy old Zündapp scooter. Then we move several bicycles, a lawnmower, a ping-pong table and, finally, There it is, Bruno says. The first car I bought when I came to Uruguay. Now let’s see if we can get it started, he adds. It hasn’t been moved for about two years.

We push it outside. Don’t worry, Bruno says, the battery is dead but we can charge it with the Discovery. It then occurs to Isabela that this is a good opportunity to clean the garage floor, and she calls the servant to do it. In the meantime, Virna is looking through some of the cabinets. She finds hockey sticks, rackets, balls and dozens of objects that remind her of how active and competitive she was when she was a teenager. Let’s play tennis one of these days, darling, she shouts to me from the garage. I’m standing next to the Peugeot, trying to be useful in some way while Bruno gets to work on the engine. I look at her and make a gesture that means something like, what a good idea! but she has her back to me, caught up in what she’s doing, so for a second I check out her body, I look at her ass, then quickly turn my attention back to Bruno. Just at that point he looks up, intercepting my gaze and producing an awkward moment in which suddenly the idea ‘sex with Virna’ flashes through my mind, and at the same instant it seems as though Bruno, who is staring at me, can also see that idea. Suddenly, it is as if Virna’s voice saying play tennis reverberates between the two of us but as if she had said have sex, and he is the father and it’s obvious that we do it, and that’s why I am there and why he wants to let me use his car, because I am his daughter’s boyfriend, for only three months so far, but for some reason he’s taken a liking to me and perhaps that is reason enough. After all, it’s so obvious, their lives are not going to change in any substantial way because he lets me use his Peugeot; but making sex so explicit, even though nobody has, in fact, explicitly said anything, is surely uncomfortable, and I feel as though I won’t be able to breathe normally until, mercifully, this strange exchange of looks ends. It lasted only a second. I breathe. Bruno turns back to his task, looks at the oil stick and says, in a low voice, How about you open the cap? I’m going to get . . . He points, then returns to the garage, wiping his fingers on a rag. Virna comes running up to me while I struggle to open the cap that isn’t budging. Look, she says. She’s holding a professional tennis racket and an old ball she bounces next to the car. Let’s play later? She prances a few metres over to a green wall that stretches away from the garage, and uses it as a backboard, contributing a rhythmic tapping to the afternoon. Finally I open the cap so we can fill up the oil. Bruno still hasn’t returned. When he appears, I am watching Virna run back and forth after the ball. He looks at me, but there are no more strange exchanges. Blank mind. OK, let’s fill it, and then we’ll hook it up to the Discovery and see if it’ll start. Pock, plock; plock, ponk, the sound of the ball Virna’s hitting accompanies the stream of oil Bruno is pouring into the dirty, greasy engine. Pock, plock. Bruno! Isabela shouts out from somewhere. He keeps the oil flowing with a steady hand. The ball hits the wall again, I hear the scrape of Virna’s shoes on the ground, I picture her sprinting to hit the ball, I imagine her in a short white tennis skirt. I resist. I watch the oil flowing. Bruno, darling! The clacking of Isabela’s heels announces her arrival from the house. I look up. She comes up behind Bruno with her lovely breasts and semi-transparent silk dress. I think about Virna’s breasts. Darling, I’m going to take the SUV to María Laura’s, Isabela says. I expect this to create a conflict, because Bruno needs the Discovery to charge the battery, but I soon realize that Virna’s mother is talking about another SUV, the bigger, darker one that is parked on the pavement. Bruno finishes filling up the oil and stands up straight. Kiss, Isabela says, and they kiss each other in front of me, briefly but not without passion. She walks away, clacking her heels and brushing down her dress. Bruno intercepts my gaze . . . He must be thinking about sex now.

The sun is setting by the time we manage to start up the Peugeot and take it out on to the street. Then we put everything back in the garage. Virna went into the house earlier, so we tell her the good news when we come in; by now we’re a bit tired. After carefully washing our hands – each in a different bathroom – Bruno offers me whiskey to celebrate, and he stretches out on the sofa to watch the Bundesliga’s most important plays of the day on the gigantic screen. Not sure to what extent I should continue to thank Bruno humbly or start to behave like the already consecrated son-in-law, I decide to sit quietly and watch television while Virna holds a long conversation on the telephone at the far end of the room.

This story gets really interesting in the third section—“Facing Facts”—when Bruno sits Jimmy down to grill him about what happened the night before, what drugs they took . . .

Tomorrow we’ll have an interview with Elvira Navarro.

Till then, remember to subscribe now and receive this issue for free . . .

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece on Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror that I wrote. Katherine Silver translated this, and New Directions published it a couple months ago.

Senselessness was one of my favorite books from last year, and She-Devil is up there on my Best of 2009 list . . .

Here’s the opening of the review:

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call.

Click here for the full review.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call:

[. . .] Olga Maria was always so discreet, so modest, so reserved, never had those fits of hysteria, she defended her home and was totally devoted to her husband and children, that’s why her death makes me so angry, my dear, what’s the point, so many bastards they don’t bother killing and a woman like that—a paragon, so hard-working, look how she started that boutique from scratch, all with her own hard work. Those two coming in now, they’re the two policemen who came to Dona Olga’s to harass us, the one with the dark jacket is the one who says his name is Deputy Chief Handal: riffraff, my dear, they’ve got no respect for other people’s pain, what’s wrong with these people, how dare they come to a decent person’s wake, their heads must be full of rot—imagine: they wanted me to reveal all of Olga Maria’s secrets, as if any of her friends or acquaintances would have planned her murder . . .

Laura’s speech flits from subject to subject like that for 190 pages, unaware of its various contradictions, such as following the statement that Olga Maria was “totally devoted to her husband and children” with heaps of sordid details about her many affairs. Although initially Laura’s character is a bit incredulous, she starts to hit a rhythm and takes shape as a less-and-less reliable narrator even as she starts to postulate very dangerous ideas about the identity of the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s murder.

And that’s the simple tension that makes this book function: our only source of information to unravel the murder plot is a narrator who is either a flibbertygibbet or a true mental case. But if she’s right, the implications behind Olga Maria’s murder transform it from a daily tragedy into something with more shadowy political motives.

Overall, this book reads beautifully (all props to Katherine Silver for her wonderful translation), and is quite captivating. Looks like Moya’s reputation will continue to grow for years to come.

6 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (El Salvador1, New Directions)

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred single-spaced printed pages place on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. I am not complete in the mind . . .

This is how Senselessness, the first of Moya’s books to make its way into English, opens. To give a bit of context: the narrator is a writer who has been hired to edit a 1,100-page report collecting testimonies from survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. “I am not complete in the mind” is one of the lines from this report that surfaces throughout the novel again and again, in a way sort of haunting the narrator who is actually trying to lead a normal life hanging out in bars, picking up women, etc., while working on this very disturbing project.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was the quality of the excerpts from the 1,100-page report of atrocities. The bits are disturbing, but in a very poetic sort of way, which is one of the reasons the narrator writes a bunch down in his notebook:

You’re a poet, just listen to this beaut, I said before reading the first sentence, taking advantage of the marimba having just ended, and in my best declamatory voice, I read: Their clothes stayed sad . . . and then I observed my buddy, but he in turn looked back at me as if he were waiting, so I immediately read the second sentence in a more commanding tone of voice, if that were possible: The houses they were sad because no people were inside them . . . And then, without waiting, I read the third one: Our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men, ay! ay! . . . Who will put back all the houses? And I observed him again because by now he must have fathomed those verses that expressed to me all the despair of the massacres, but not to my buddy Toto, more of a landowner than a poet, as I sadly discovered, when I heard him mumble something like “Cool . . . ,” [. . .]

But as I wrote in my review this novel isn’t all violence and depressing stories—it actually has a number of very humorous sections (like the bit about a woman’s stinky feet) and is an incredibly human book.

And the Bernhardian rhythms of the prose are beautifully translated, absolutely drawing the reader into the narrator’s world.

Speaking of the translation, I had a chance to meet Katherine Silver last week at the MLA convention. She’s a remarkable translator—and very fun person—and told me about how she discovered Moya at the Guadalajara Book Fair. I can’t find an account of this online, but basically she said that someone gave her the book, and was blown away when she read it on the plane ride home, and decided that she absolutely had to translate it. And thankfully, Barbara Epler of New Directions (who has spectacular taste) picked it up.

And speaking of Katherine, Scott Esposito interviewed her for Bloomsbury Review, a magazine with a large circulation and completely dysfunctional website. Thankfully, the Center for the Art of Translation re-ran this interview on their site:

Scott Esposito: Now Moya is a big comma-user in Senselessness. To a large degree these commas regulate the pace of the sentences, and the sentences are always changing speed. If you compare Moya to someone like Proust of Henry James, these writers have long, elaborate sentences too, but their sentences always seem to move at the same speed, whereas with Moya we’re up and down depending on the narrator’s erratic consciousness. What was it like trying to reproduce this effect in English?

Katherine Silver: One thing we did, and this was Barbara Epler’s suggestion, we got rid of the serial commas. I liked that a lot because it made the adjective/noun combinations more fluid, like they were all one unit, and it let the comma be more of a pause in these long sentences. If we had cluttered up the book with things like serial commas I think we would have lost the impact of the punctuation.

SE: And do you feel like you were successful in keeping Moya’s rhythms?

KS: I think I was. This was the big challenge of the book, keeping Horacio’s rhythms, and I think it worked. It wasn’t the same rhythms as the Spanish obviously, but I think it mimics the effect. Whenever I see Horacio read the book out loud, I’m always very pleased. I can see him getting into a rhythm with the English, even though he’s not pronouncing the words quite right, he gets into his own rhythm and he seems to have an intuitive sense of the text. And whenever I see him read, it’s like a layering: it’s his work on the bottom, and them my translation, and then him again reading it—interpreting it, really—and drawing on both.

And as one of the big proponents for this novel when it first came out, Scott also published an interview with Moya in The Quarterly Conversation which includes a bit about the “snippets”:

Mauro Javier Cardenas: The snippets of testimony in Senselessness are taken from actual testimonies. You did some work for the human rights report where these testimonies come from. Could you talk about your experience in working with that report? I’m not trying to find out how autobiographical Senselessness is. I’m just wondering about that original experience that was later to become the starting point for the novel.

Horacio Castellanos Moya: What I did was a kind of editorial advisory work for a human rights organization toward the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998. Back then I wrote in a notebook some of the phrases from the testimonies of the witnesses of the genocide, just as I always write in my notebooks phrases from the books I am reading that make an impression on me. . . . But it was not until six years later, in 2003, when I was planning to travel to Guatemala to find a journalistic job, that I began to browse my old notebooks, found those phrases, and told myself that there was a potential novel in them. I started working on it immediately.

MJC: I remember that when I was reading Senselessness for the first time those snippets of testimony seemed almost humorous to me because of their syntax. It was only when I finished the novel that the sadness of those testimonies began to sink in. They are like relics of a world completely foreign to me, a world that was being disappeared . . .

HCM: The force of those snippets arises from the pain and the desolation that they contain in a very concentrated way; it arises too from the sadness of a Mayan culture submitted to blood and fire for 500 years. The fact that those snippets have been said by people who could barely speak Spanish and who had a different vision of the world gives them their poetic character, and to me it also gave me the liberty to use them as a rich and malleable literary material.

1 This is sort of inaccurate. From the author bio: “Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras, but grew up in El Salvador. He has lived in Guatemala, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico (where he spent twelve years as a journalist, editor, and political analyst), Spain and Germany. . . . [He] is not living in exile as part of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

8 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Shortly after arriving in Rochester with the goal of creating Open Letter, I was flipping through the Ray-Gude Merlin Agency rights list and came across Horacio Castellanos Moya. I immediately e-mailed Nicole Witt only to find out that New Directions had already purchased the rights to Senselessness.

As a publisher I was disappointed for being late to the game . . . As a reader I was thrilled that this book was going to be available in the near future, and based on the description in the rights guide, I knew this was going to be an amazing book.

The year is only half over, but so far, this is my pick for the best translation of 2008. It’s a stunning book that’s been praised by the likes of Roberto Bolano and Russell Banks. Even more exciting (disappointing from the publisher angle?) is the fact that New Directions is going to be doing more of his works, including She-Devil in the Mirror, which is Francisco Goldman’s favorite.

Anyway, I didn’t give this much of an objective review, but there’s not much to criticize about this book. Personally, I think the long quotes in the review speak for themselves.

8 July 08 | Chad W. Post |

The first of El Salvadoran Horacio Castellano Moya’s books to be translated into English, Senselessness is frankly, one of the best books to be published this year. It’s one of those rare books written in a very specific, very stylized fashion that’s simultaneously accessible and captivating.

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and ever copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.

His “task” is to edit a 1,100-page report of atrocities committed by the military against the indigenous population in an unnamed Central American country. And he has three months in which to finish.

This isn’t a novel about those atrocities though—at least not directly. Against this backdrop of what’s clearly one of the most disturbing, soul wrenching jobs in the history of editing, the narrator tries to live as normal a life as possible, getting drunk in bars, trying to pick up women, surviving amid the accounts of wretched acts in which he spends his daily life. There are several humorous sections to this book, like the bit about the woman’s stinky feet, which is absolutely hilarious in a viscerally disgusting way.

One of the many reasons this book works is the strange demented beauty of the Indians’ accounts, and the demented obsession the narrator has with the manuscript. He keeps choice quotes in a notebook, and has a tendency to read them aloud at bars to stunned, unappreciative audiences:

You’re a poet, just listen to this beaut, I said before reading the first sentence, taking advantage of the marimba having just ended, and in my best declamatory voice, I read: Their clothes stayed sad . . . and then I observed my buddy, but he in turn looked back at me as if he were waiting, so I immediately read the second sentence in a more commanding tone of voice, if that were possible: The houses they were sad because no people were inside them . . . And then, without waiting, I read the third one: Our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men, ay! ay! . . . Who will put back all the houses? And I observed him again because by now he must have fathomed those verses that expressed to me all the despair of the massacres, but not to my buddy Toto, more of a landowner than a poet, as I sadly discovered, when I heard him mumble something like “Cool . . . ,” [. . .]

Moya’s cadences and run-on sentences that turn on themselves, that contain digressions upon digressions, that shift suddenly in unexpected directions, are masterfully rendered by Katherine Silver. Anything less than a perfect translation would utterly destroy this book. Each sentence, each paragraph, flows with a beauty that is very cinematic and adds a degree of immediacy to the prose.

And, beyond the art, aside from the Bernhardian rhythms, this style, so eloquently rendered, accurately captures and represents the narrator:

[. . .] this guy with a shaved head who very cunningly segued from this remarks about Vallejo’s poetry and its relationship to indigenous languages to a subtle interrogation about my work at the archdiocese and my friendship with Erick, all packaged neatly into his conversation with me at the kitchen table, not paying any attention to calls to join the group in the living room, where things were picking up, as if the guy had known ahead of time about the psychological problems that afflicated me and that consisted of wanting to tell everything once I’d been encouraged to start talking, down to the hairs and the smells, spill it all out to a point of satiety, compulsively, in a kind of verbal spasm, as if it were an orgiastic race that would culminate in my total abandon, until I was left without secrets, until my interlocutor knew all he wanted to know, in an exhaustive confession after which I would suffer the worst possible backlash.

As the novel progresses, the plot gets a bit darker, a bit more paranoid, a bit more inconclusive, leading to an ending that is pretty startling and made me rethink all that had come before . . . I don’t want to give anything away, but any novel that ends with, “ ‘Everybody’s fucked. Be grateful you left.’ “ is a classic in my book.

25 June 07 | Chad W. Post |

Although this is dated June 6th, I think the final parts of this interview were posted today . . .

In support of Reading the World, Dan Wickett of Emerging Writers Network (and Dzanc Books) hosted an e-round table discussion with four translators: Howard Curtis, Katherine Silver, Paul Olchvary, and Richard Jeffrey Newman.

It’s a pretty interesting discussion, especially since the four usually have different takes on each of the issues. Makes things lively . . .

....
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