2 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true, to a certain extent: Murakami, for better or worse, has a particular style, and with it come the trappings and clichéd Murakami-isms that, as a fan, you come to both love and loathe about the 65-year-old writer. He has become the master of a certain kind of metaphysical mystery wrapped in urban ennui. You’re either on board (like me), or you aren’t (like a certain editor of this website).

But anyone attempting to play Murakami Bingo with his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is going to lose. There are no parallel worlds, talking animals, or mysterious women. There’s only one passing reference each to wells and cats, both only as metaphors, and there’s really only one piece of music that’s talked about at any length. And it’s not even jazz.

This is Murakami at his most straightforward and subdued, the likes of which we’ve really only seen—in novels, at least—in Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun. It is a relatively straightforward tale of friendship, depression, and memory. As such, it sheds a beacon on both Murakami’s core strengths and weaknesses as a writer, some thirty odd years into his career.

In this latest novel, the eponymous Tsukuru, a middle-aged train station engineer, reflects on his high school days, when he belonged to a group of friends so close that its importance to his life has become essentially mythic. Each of their names even contain a color—Aka (red), the temperamental brainiac; Ao (blue), the cool people-person; Kuro (black), the sarcastic comedian; and Shiro (white), the quiet beauty—except for Tsukuru, who they joked was “colorless.” This moniker takes on a whole new meaning for Tsukuru when the group unceremoniously and without explanation excise him from their circle after he leaves their hometown for Tokyo and college. Tsukuru’s sudden exile sends him into a wretched depression, from which he clearly did not come out entirely intact. Sixteen years later, in the present day, a casual girlfriend prompts Tsukuru to try and figure out just what exactly happened, in the hopes that he might be able to finally heal, and perhaps commit more fully to his present relationship with her.

Peel away the usual pseudo-magical realist trappings, and this is the template for the über-Murakami story: an average, lonely man embarks on a quest. But time changes both the man and the world around him. An adventure like this, thirty years ago, involved research and a cross-country trek into parts unknown, á la A Wild Sheep Chase. In Colorless, his girlfriend suggests he checks Facebook.

This epitomizes what makes Colorless both compelling and frustrating in equal measure: it is, essentially, drama-free. The conflict, such as it is, takes place entirely in the past, waiting quietly to be unearthed. Tsukuru systematically contacts each friend, one by one, and slowly comes to learn the truth. And while there is a conspiracy of a sort, and twists and turns along the way, the universe does not fracture in two in response; there is no McGuffin to set it all right. The only thing Tsukuru can do is to push forward and engage with his old friends, and finally be able to come to terms with the contents of his present existence. It is perhaps the best novel I have read where nothing actually happens.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, well, it is and it isn’t. The novels that Murakami is best known for—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84—are bombastic in their everything and the kitchen sink approach to writing. They’re weird, messy, digressive, splashy, about seemingly everything and nothing at the same time. They succeed and suffer in their attempts at a fractured 21st century “total novel,” the kind that Doestoevsky and Victor Hugo used to write. Stripped down to just an emotional core, Colorless is outwardly less ambitious, but a lot more personal. Without the distraction of the typical Murakami weird, however, it is a lot easier to spot Murakami’s weaknesses.

For one, Tsukuru is boring. Like every Murakami protagonist, Tsukuru is the consummate everyman. He is average in just about every way, as we’ve been told over and over in one story or another. In other novels, it is pretty easy to get past this—the narrator is a cipher, our surrogate, the straight man in a cast of weirdos, holding our hand as we bemusedly come to terms with a strange new reality. Colorless has no such distractions, and there are no other characters that stick around long enough for us to get interested in, like the vivacious Midori in the similarly somber Norwegian Wood. Tsukuru trots from one friend to the next, knowing that despite the amicable, nostalgic peace that comes with reconnecting with an old friend, things will never be the same, and it’s time to be moving on.

Murakami has always had a straightforward yet quietly elegant way with words, but the language in Colorless is so undemanding it frequently comes across as repetitive. (Translator Philip Gabriel has always been more than up to the task in previous translations; it seems unfair to throw him under the bus now.) When tasked with illustrating a character’s feelings, Murakami generally has no qualms with telling instead of showing—a big no-no any Intro-level creative writing class will teach you—but in Colorless it feels like this has become a bigger problem than ever before. While reading I even came up with a drinking game: a shot for every time you read some variation of Tsukuru wanting or needing something “more than anything.” Spoiler alert: you’re going to blackout.

So, to tally up so far: a boring narrator, facile language, clichéd characters, and a conflict-free narrative. Sounds pretty dismal.

And yet, there’s something about Colorless that works despite all these obvious flaws, something that makes all these seemingly egregious sins click into place. It is still just so damn readable. And while this subtle propulsion certainly doesn’t make the work transcendent, it makes it a far cry from the mess that I make it sound to be. Murakami is a workman, a writer in some tangibly fundamental way—in short, a professional. He can’t help but get a few things right.

One of the ways in which Colorless is much cleverer than at first glance is the way Murakami so deftly and subtly illustrates the fallibility of memory. Tsukuru is reflecting on events that happened sixteen years ago, the aftermath of which has colored his perspective of himself and the world around him. He frequently remarks that nothing is interesting or remarkable about him because that’s fundamentally how he sees himself. He has carried the feeling of being “colorless” for years; he is someone who seems himself, essentially, as someone who is very easily abandoned. His friends are described practically with only one characteristic each, as if stock characters right out of the Breakfast Club. But memory orders our lives by both exaggerating and obliterating the truth. Each friend had their role to play, as we all do during those formative years, and the distance of time amplifies those impressions even more. It’s telling that with every friend Tsukuru reconnects with, Tsukuru can’t help but notice how they seem both exactly the same and inexplicably different.

So while the language itself is perhaps shallow, its simplicity belies a complex and satisfying narrative thread of a man who is taking his first steps toward self-actualization. A man who learns he has self-worth, and value, and that his friends, his history, his fundamental self, are not what he assumed they were. They are simple but powerful truths about what it means to grow older and wiser, and to be able to look back at the past without letting it define you. Anyone who has suffered, and survived, episodes of depression or trauma will easily relate.

Murakami moves deftly back and forth between past and present in the beginning of the novel, so while it takes nearly a hundred pages for the “plot” to begin, in the meantime we get to enjoy another common but more welcome Murakami-ism: the story within the story. Here, it comes courtesy of a friend named Haida (another colorful name, this time gray), whom Tsukuru meets in his traumatic college years. The tale concerns Haida’s father, who, after suddenly dropping out of college, meets a pianist at a secluded hotel who claims to be able to predict his own imminent death. Haida similarly drops out of college soon after, another colorful friend who suddenly abandons the colorless Tsukuru.

The reader will have to decide whether the sum of the novel is equal to more or less than its parts. At times it feels both simultaneous too long, with a hundred-odd pages just to feel like something is happening, and too short, with that niggling sense that characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. On this issue I might perhaps place blame on the presentation of the book itself. Chip Kidd has designed the book beautifully, as he always does, but the font and margins are absolutely gigantic, making what should be a relatively concise 200-odd page character study feel like a sloppy mess at 400. Perhaps Knopf wanted to hedge their bets and make readers feel like they are getting “their money’s worth” or, “a real page-turner”; I hope the paperback will adjust the layout so I won’t feel like I’m reading a large-print young adult book.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will not go down as Murakami’s masterpiece, but it certainly won’t go down as his worst either. I absolutely cannot imagine it will change the minds of Murakami detractors, and even amongst his fans it will be a pleasurable read that might leave some feeling hollow by the end. But, as perhaps befitting of the old saw, still waters run deep. Strip all the metaphysical nonsense away, and Colorless is Murakami to the very core, fault lines and all.

7 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P. T. Smith on My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, and forthcoming from Knopf.

Pron was one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and has already made an impression with this, his American debut. And thus we move quickly back into the review world, back in the zone of being on-schedule. So enjoy the review, it’s good to be back in the swing of things, and the apostrophe in the title is not misplaced: the line is from the Dylan Thomas poem “I Fellowed Sleep.” So there.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within your own culture, or that live in a certain parallel universe version of a familiar story (yet another reason to read stories that follow common tropes, but come from a different culture or gender perspective). Nearly midway through his My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (lengthy, obscure-poetic-sounding titles being a cross-cultural habit, apparently), Patricio Pron writes what could be found only in rare, specific cases in the US: “At this point, to put it another way, the inevitable shift occurred from individual victim to collective victim.” This idea comes to life in the US in social justice cases, in calls for a victimized group to speak together, to be heard, but in Argentina, for those living or raised in the 1970s, Pron sees an entire country as collective victim, an entire country that endured dictatorship, kidnappings, murders, executions—all falling under the catch-all “disappeared.” None of this is to say that this is a novel to read to learn a clear history of the Argentinean dictatorship and its aftermath; in fact, Pron makes no effort to over-explain references, and in her clear translation, Mara Faye Lethem makes no moves to insert awkward clarifications. Instead, knowledge is deployed as if we already understand, or are willing to do the extra work.

Structured into four sections, each broken down into micro-chapters (another cross-cultural, increasingly common, habit—one hopes for reasons other than making it easier to read), Pron sets out to understand how this collective victimhood works, how the silences of history, failures of memory, and personal losses, all become disappearances. The narrator is a drug-addled young man who has lived eight years out of his home country before returning to Argentina to be with his family during his father’s seemingly impending death, which suddenly, strangely, doesn’t happen. Once there, he begins the process of uncovering and recovery: of his self, the why of his memory loss that precedes the drugs; of his father; of the country’s victims, and how that victimhood infects everything it contacts. The heart and bulk—but unfortunately for the success of the book, not the soul—of this investigation lies in a collection of news reports and photos he finds in his father’s study, all pertaining to a man’s disappearance. Reading through, analyzing, the narrator wants to solve both the mystery of the disappearance and of his father’s obsession with it. Though it occurred after Argentina’s dictatorship, and so does not belong to the vast numbers of “the disappeared,” he becomes another victim because of that haunting past. This is that infection of collective victimhood, and what Pron wants to brave against.

For the rest of the review, go here.

7 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis |

Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within your own culture, or that live in a certain parallel universe version of a familiar story (yet another reason to read stories that follow common tropes, but come from a different culture or gender perspective). Nearly midway through his My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (lengthy, obscure-poetic-sounding titles being a cross-cultural habit, apparently), Patricio Pron writes what could be found only in rare, specific cases in the US: “At this point, to put it another way, the inevitable shift occurred from individual victim to collective victim.” This idea comes to life in the US in social justice cases, in calls for a victimized group to speak together, to be heard, but in Argentina, for those living or raised in the 1970s, Pron sees an entire country as collective victim, an entire country that endured dictatorship, kidnappings, murders, executions—all falling under the catch-all “disappeared.” None of this is to say that this is a novel to read to learn a clear history of the Argentinean dictatorship and its aftermath; in fact, Pron makes no effort to over-explain references, and in her clear translation, Mara Faye Lethem makes no moves to insert awkward clarifications. Instead, knowledge is deployed as if we already understand, or are willing to do the extra work.

Structured into four sections, each broken down into micro-chapters (another cross-cultural, increasingly common, habit—one hopes for reasons other than making it easier to read), Pron sets out to understand how this collective victimhood works, how the silences of history, failures of memory, and personal losses, all become disappearances. The narrator is a drug-addled young man who has lived eight years out of his home country before returning to Argentina to be with his family during his father’s seemingly impending death, which suddenly, strangely, doesn’t happen. Once there, he begins the process of uncovering and recovery: of his self, the why of his memory loss that precedes the drugs; of his father; of the country’s victims, and how that victimhood infects everything it contacts. The heart and bulk—but unfortunately for the success of the book, not the soul—of this investigation lies in a collection of news reports and photos he finds in his father’s study, all pertaining to a man’s disappearance. Reading through, analyzing, the narrator wants to solve both the mystery of the disappearance and of his father’s obsession with it. Though it occurred after Argentina’s dictatorship, and so does not belong to the vast numbers of “the disappeared,” he becomes another victim because of that haunting past. This is that infection of collective victimhood, and what Pron wants to brave against.

The narrator eventually uncovers that the man’s sister was not only one of the disappeared, but was led by his father into political activism. The attempt to recover her by recovering her brother, this transference, has moved onto the narrator himself, now trying to prevent his own and his father’s disappearances. We see again that collective victimhood, swallowing anyone it can. The way this ghost of history and violence stalks through the novel is compelling, and at Pron’s most convicted and skillful, you can feel its encroachment. It is unfortunate that Pron suffers from uncertainty about how to move with a project he is obviously deeply invested in. Because he is dealing with history, both of the country and of his family, with the blend of fiction and non-fiction, there is uncertainty. It is not the uncertainty of the reader, or of a writer questioning how to blend the two, but the uncertainty of a writer unsure if he should. It’s one thing to blend fact and fiction to stare down a culture’s identity, and another to devote a work to questioning the morality of blending the two—but to be unable to choose and not center the complication itself, to want both, weakens to the work.

The collection of newspaper scraps, indented as long quotations and written in reportage style in a claim to non-fiction, make up the significant portion of the My Fathers’ Ghost and this too is unfortunate. They are not only less interesting to read—in fact boring, repetitive, at times—they don’t cut to the quick of Pron’s themes and concerns, precisely because verisimilitude lurks over them. Though they are a necessary core for the novel’s structure, Pron thrives, both in style and substance, in the rest of the book, where fiction takes over.

This structure, of a confused young writer obsessed with a crime and pouring over the evidence, any detail—the number of inhabitants of a town, latitude and longitude coordinates, etc.—possibly mattering, the failure of police, a haunting sense of lurking violence, all point to influences, most pointedly detective novels, and, endorsed by Pron himself, Bolaño. The influence of Bolaño is strong, but Pron is talented enough not to let it dominate. There is no singular moment that is a recognizably specific Bolaño moment or a sense of mimicry, and it is likely the honest comfort with this influence that allows it to work naturally, and for differences, even responses, to spring up. For all of the ways that Bolaño’s characters swing between obsession and detachment, they aren’t usually detached from their obsessions. Pron’s narrator is and moves his investigation through a near fugue state, his obsession separate from him. He only follows, hoping the fugue will clear.
On the other hand, the connection with crime stories is, surprisingly, given Bolaño’s openness to the genre, one the narrator, and seemingly Pron, rejects, even as it swallows him and the novel: “the resolution of most detective stories is condescending, no matter how ruthless the plotting, so that the reader, once the loose ends are tied up and the guilty finally punished, can return to the real world with the convictions that crimes get solved and remain locked between the covers of a book.” This of course is true not of most crime stories, but only of the simplest, the laziest—the type seen in television procedurals. Not only that, but the fight against this mode of the genre, the celebration of the lost detective with no answers, has been ongoing for decades at least, so there is nothing interesting in openly acknowledging it as if it were new and it becomes a claim to complications that aren’t there.

In the end, the novel becomes, for a large middle section, too dependent on a strategy that is neither interesting, nor something that Pron or the narrator seem to believe in. As much as there is little belief in the form, Pron shows a lack of trust in his own clarity, or in the reader. The numbered micro-chapters are not fully sequential. In the first of the novel’s four parts, numerous numbers are skipped, to show the narrator’s fractured memory, but we see this already, and are told it. Later, in the throes of his investigation, the narrator falls ill, and feverish, the numbers skip again, or repeat or backtrack, but again, we know he is losing clarity, and there is no specific reason for each interruption of order.
Yet it should again be emphasized, clarified, anticipated in future books, that when Pron moves away from blocking out his narrative around these newspaper clippings, when he focuses on fiction that’s based on non-fiction rather than non-fiction playing itself off as fiction, My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain gets deepest into its own questions, and finds multitudes. Pron’s narrator wonders how to take on the national identity of Argentine when he has seen the symbols of that identity abused, used “so many times in circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that we didn’t have anything to do with and didn’t want to have anything to do with.” This feeling is so overwhelming that he includes a World Cup1 victory in the same sentence as a war. He wants to be able to embrace an Argentinean identity at the same time as a writer’s identity, while “That a writer could be Argentine and living is a fairly recent discovery.”

The explorations of such questions, some of which fall away as the focus tightens on the newspaper clippings, are more crafted, more affecting when Pron gives his writing free reign, unburdened by the sense of obligation to the idea of “how it actually happened.” In an early passage, Pron’s narrator ponders his relationship with his parents, trying to find how to compare, describe it, and comes to: “Children are policemen of their parents, but I don’t like policemen. They’ve never gotten along well with my family.” In one moment, the focus is his direct relationship with his parents, in the next a simile goes awry and takes him in a dangerous, fearful direction, plunging to the past. The obliqueness, the potential strangeness of fiction, gives reason both to read deeply, and to invest in Pron’s mission of uncovering Argentinean history—personal, familial, and political: a childhood game of killing frogs becomes both the child’s version of unknowingly participating in the violence of his country and the adult’s attempt to reconcile; the fever dreams give us images such as a transparent fish, with a “fistful of autonomous organs with no center of command,” which we cannot do anything but associate with our narrator.

My Fathers’ Ghost is an effort to tell a story that has previously been passed over in silence, while knowing that this secret knowledge is not one of power or liberation, but one that comes with danger and suffering: “You don’t ever want to know certain things, because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Pron’s desire is to fill the silence, not with noise but with clarity and truths. Near the end, the narrator reminds of us inheritance, “My father had started to search for his lost friend and I, without meaning to, had also started shortly afterward to search for my father.”

This inheritance is not only of a search for what has been lost, but also a complicated relationship between the lost, what happens when the lost is found, and the consequences of expression. When talking with his sister, the narrator attempts to gently mock their father for always going out to start the car alone instead of waiting for the kids. The mocking ends when his sister reveals the truth, and the debt that the son owes the father: “journalists were getting killed by car bombs; he went out alone every day to start the car to protect us.” Added to this debt, which came into existence only with revelation, is the narrator’s belief that his choice must be “the truth” or “a compassionate lie,” with the latter being one of escapism and blindness. There is also, and it is glimpsed at times here, a form of lie, fiction, that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the truth. That power is compromised in My Father’s Ghost, a compromise established in Pron’s decision to give his parents veto power over his book. Those glimpses into a deeper soul for the book give one hope that Pron’s next work will be more decisive, expand on seedlings planted here, and for an American reader, give hope that a young American writer can speak to the silences that have overlaid the American atrocities of the last decade.

1 The appearance of an unnamed Maradona, an “obese caricature of a soccer player,” in an airport, wearing a T-shirt with himself on it, is a nice moment of literature and soccer overlapping, a call to Three Percent’s upcoming “World Cup of Literature”.

24 October 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here’s an open letter from Jonathan Wright about some shit that went down with Knopf and Dr. Alaa Al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building. If nothing else, you MUST check out this set of corrections from Al Aswany. It is things. And something I’m using in my classes from now until forever . . . Anyway, the letter:

Why translators should give Dr Alaa Al Aswany and Knopf Doubleday a wide berth

For the sake of fellow translators who might find themselves caught up in similar circumstances and because I do not think that abuses should go unnoticed, I would like to lay out the facts surrounding the project to produce an English version of The Automobile Club of Egypt, the latest novel by well-known Egyptian writer Alaa el-Aswany. Firstly, I should say that I am not of an argumentative or litigious nature and have never before had any dispute with any of the authors or publishers of the eight of so books I have translated over the last few years. On the contrary, my experience of life is that, if you have a strong case and are willing to press it, your opponent usually gives way. That’s because, to paraphrase Descartes, a sense of justice is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, since no one ever desired more of it than they already have.

So when Aswany unilaterally and whimsically withdrew from an agreement arranged between me and his publishers, I assumed he would offer his apologies, honor his obligations and make speedy and generous compensation for the time and effort I had expended on his behalf. The more so since Dr Aswany and I are hardly strangers. I have met him many times, interviewed him on two occasions for television and he and his wife have visited me for lunches and dinners at home in Cairo and at my country house in Fayoum on two or three occasions. We had worked together since 2009 on his political writings, specifically the weekly columns he wrote for Egyptian newspapers, the English version of which I prepared for international syndication. He was always pleased with my work and I had great respect for the brave position he took against police brutality in the last years of the Mubarak regime, against plans to install Mubarak’s son Gamal as his successor and then against the military rulers who ruled Egypt up to June 2012. I remember meeting him in Tahrir Square in February 2011 as he shouted in outrage that police snipers were shooting at the crowd from somewhere near the Interior Ministry. After the revolution, I worked on a volume of his articles, The State of Egypt, which won good reviews and sold well in the English-speaking world. When the literary elite belittled Aswany’s novels, I always stood up for him, arguing that Egypt and the Arab world in general needed good story-tellers who put plot and character ahead of literary ostentation and obsessive self-analysis. I said there was room for everyone, and that Aswany filled a gaping hole.

I can no longer feel the same way about Dr Aswany, especially in his private capacity as an individual with social obligations towards those around him. The least I can say is that he is not an honorable man. But let others be the judge, as I explain the origins of our dispute:

In August 2012, I was approached by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, with whom I have an amicable working relationship dating back some years, to see if I would be interested in handling the English version of Aswany’s novel, The Automobile Club of Egypt, which he was then planning to finish by the end of November. I said I would be pleased to take it on.

I communicated with Dr Aswany about the book on and off between September 2012 and February 2013, mainly to get a clearer idea of when it would be ready. This was against the background of AUC Press telling me that they intended to recommend me as the translator, with Dr Aswany’s knowledge and approval.

On February 15, I sent Dr Aswany an email, saying, “Do let me know how you are progressing with The Automobile Club. I’m looking forward to seeing a copy and starting work on it.” He replied, “I finished already the novel I will send the Arabic version next week to my agent Andrew Wylie. He asked me to have the text first and then he will send it to the publishers. I think you will have the text through Wylie very soon.

On February 20, AUC Press sent me the complete Arabic text of the novel and asked me to prepare a 15 to 20-page sample for submission to the New York-based publishers Knopf Doubleday, saying they would need to approve the sample before we went ahead with the project.

On February 27, I submitted an 8,600-word sample to AUC Press.

On March 14, AUC Press sent me an email, saying that Knopf has studied the sample and had agreed to go ahead with the translation. It then laid out the basics of what would become our contract—payment, deadlines etc.

On March 27, George Andreou, an editor at Knopf, sent me an email, saying, “I am writing to introduce myself as Dr Alaa’s editor at Knopf and to say how pleased I am that you have accepted the commission to translate his new book. I look forward to working with you on the editing of the English version. In the meanwhile, if I can answer any questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.” I said he could help by expediting the contract process.

On April 11, I reminded Mr Andreou of the contract and he replied, “It has been ordered. Sorry for the delay. We’ll be back in touch shortly as to when you might expect it.” The same day Jahua Kim of Knopf emailed me, saying, “There is a backlog in the contracts department at the moment, but we should have your contract ready in about a week. Please feel free to reach me if you have further questions.

On April 25, Dr Aswany sent me a message, saying he thanked me for my “efforts translating The Automobile Club” and asked if I had any questions. I replied that I was making good progress but I would prefer to ask my questions all at once at a later stage. His assistant replied, “Dr. Alaa is glad you are working on it currently . . . and he will be very willing to help anytime.

On May 1, William Shannon of Knopf finally sent me a contract (for text, click here), with a cover note saying, “If the agreement looks in order please print out and sign three copies and return signed copies to Juhea Kim in George Andreou’s office.” I returned the copies as requested, both as signed and scanned JPEGs by email and as hard copy by mail.

On May 11, I received an email from Dr Aswany’s agent, Andrew Wylie, saying, “On further reflection . . . and in consultation with Dr Alaa and with Knopf, we are obliged to withdraw the request for you to translate the novel.” The message gave no substantial explanation. I replied that I had already signed a contract and done a large several months of work on the project. I said Dr Aswany was free to choose another translator but Knopf and/or Dr Aswany had an obligation to pay me for the work I had done and for the time I would have wasted.

On May 12, Dr Aswany sent me an email, his only message ever on this matter, despite he long acquaintance and amicable relations. He said he wanted Mr X (his identity is irrelevant) to work on The Automobile Club. The explanation he offered for his decision was “I think you could understand that I feel comfortable to work with him.” He blamed AUC Press for what he called a misunderstanding and said he wasn’t aware I was working on it (although we had in fact discussed it openly several times). At this stage Aswany had not seen the sample submitted to Knopf in February. But he now asked for a sample translation and, strangely, also proposed giving Mr X a role editing my translation. I sent him the 8,600-word sample that Knopf had approved.

The next day, on May 13, Charles Buchan of the Wylie Agency sent me a message dictated by Andrew Wylie, saying, “Alaa Al Aswany has reviewed the opening pages of your translation of The Automobile Club, and he has found the translation unsatisfactory . . . The book will be translated by Mr X. I have notified AUC and Knopf accordingly.” Dr Aswany and his assistant had spent several hours overnight poring over the sample text, trying to identify aspects that they thought they might plausibly present as ‘mistakes’, apparently to justify retroactively their decision to withdraw from the contract. They were a little overenthusiastic and their efforts are risible. If anyone is interested in the details, the whole document is available here.] The relevant Arabic text and the relevant part of the English version are available here and here.

The document, which was circulated to several people, contains remarks that would be defamatory under British law. One of the most outrageous is Aswany’s objection to the spelling Fatiha for the first chapter of the Quran. Fatiha is of course the standard transliteration favoured by most academics and publishers. He writes: “Mr.Wright wrote ‘Fatiha’ instead of ‘Fatha’. The ‘Fatha’ is the most famous Muslim prayer and the only explanation of this mistake is that Mr. Wright is not able to read this very famous word correctly in Arabic.” The document continues in similar vein. I particularly admired Aswany’s ingenuity when he objected to ‘I felt lonely’ for the Arabic ‘aHsastu bil-wiHsha’. He would prefer ‘I felt solitude’. He insists on placing chalets rather than beach houses on the Mediterranean coast. No big deal, but it might give readers the impression they are in the Swiss Alps. The list goes on. But the bigger picture is that Aswany and his assistant appear to think that a translation must match the original word by word, with nouns replacing nouns and so on. Or perhaps they don’t really think that: maybe they just thought it would be a good wheeze to avoid their financial obligations under an inconvenient agreement. If Hell exists, I assume it has a special corner for those who bear false witness against their colleagues for the sake of financial gain.

To continue the story: on May 21, Mr Andreou, in a rare moment of honesty from Knopf in the course of various exchanges, wrote to me saying, “As you know, I was content with your sample. It is simply not feasible, however, for us, as Dr Aswany’s publisher, to proceed with an arrangement that displeases him: author’s (sic) have their prerogatives.” In other words, his justification for withdrawing from the agreement was based on the decision of the author, which itself appears to have been based on a whim. He offered me a small amount in compensation, and I said his offer was inadequate.

After a series of exchanges over the proportion of the work completed, Knopf has ignored my proposal, now about one month old, that we choose an independent arbiter to make an assessment—an idea that strikes me as eminently reasonable.2

Knopf has argued that we never had an agreement because I do not have a contract signed by them (they never sent me a signed copy), and that therefore their offer is ex gratia. My legal advice is that this argument is baseless and that all the elements of an agreement exist. The contract makes no provision for unilateral withdrawal and the only quality provision refers to a final text to be submitted in September 2013, which will never be completed. On October 15, Knopf tried a new approach, alleging that it never even approved the sample translation submitted in February. This is what in plain English we call a lie and, as I noted above, Mr Andreou said the opposite on May 21.

I did have one further exchange with Dr Aswany, when I informed him on May 22 that until our dispute was resolved I could no longer translate his political articles. His response illustrates his attitude to those he deals with. His only concern that my ‘unprofessional’ decision, which he didn’t appear to expect, had disrupted the worldwide distribution of one short article. Under ordinary circumstances, he said, he would have withheld the money I was owed for previous articles—a total of about $600. “Despite all this, I will arrange to give you your money, because I believe I should behave well to the end,” he added.

Thank you, Dr Aswany, you are very gracious, but you have not behaved well. In fact, your behavior has been despicable.

Aswany can be contacted at dralaa57@yahoo.com

The editor-in-chief at Knopf is Sonny Mehta, contactable at smehta@randomhouse.com

I can be contacted at jnthnwrght@gmail.com or in London on +447586244484

Jonathan Wright
Oct 23, 2013

1 Holy shitsnacks is all of this document insane. It’s the worst sort of authorial interference in a translator’s work, and is both rude and pretty lame.

One example: From the column entitled, “Mr. Wright’s wrong translation” (wow. WOW.), “My wife realized I needed some time alone.”

In the “The Correct accurate meaning of the word” column: “My wife understood my need for the solitude.”

The fuck? Seriously? Not only is the “Wright’s wrong” a terrible pun and really over-the-top, but “Correct accurate meaning” is redundant and sounds like someone who doesn’t understand English. That and “my need for the solitude.” Oh boy, oh boy.

And it goes on and on and on. “Like a bewitched city” to be replaced by “as if.” “I had a good look” versus “I had a look.” This reads like a hack job done by someone who wanted to create cause to get rid of Jonathan Wright as the translator.

2 This is a clause included in every single Open Letter contract. If we think a translation is awful, there is a system for sending it to three outside judges who evaluate it. No matter what, the translator gets 2/3 of the agreed to payment.

21 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece from Jeremy Garber on Javier Marías’s The Infatuations, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and available from Knopf.

I could take a year off of work just to read, and at the end of that year, my “to read” bookshelves would still be overflowing and I’d still feel like I didn’t get to all the things that I wanted.

I only mention this because my copy of Marías’s The Infatuations arrived yesterday and made me want to set aside everything else. (Except for the fact that that “everything else” is editing Juan José Saer’s La Grande, which may very well be the best book I’ve read since reading Saer’s Scars.) But, I also still have the Marías trilogy to get to. And a stack of 12-14 books that I want to review for Three Percent. And I now have cable and all of the La Liga, Premiere League, Serie A, and Ligue 1 games to watch. And.

Anyway, Jeremy Garber — who is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore and has written for The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on Powells.com—wrote this fantastic review of The Infatuations. Jeremy’s reviews are always really fantastic, and I love his technique of inserting a ton of quotes from the book itself.

Here’s the opening:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

Being that there are so many ways in which one might consider a book’s overall effect (to say nothing of how certain elements may appeal to one reader over another), it can be rather arduous to convey what it is about a particular work that makes it resonate as it does. To some, prose is paramount. to others, believable characters and their development, with whom a reader can identify or at least empathize. Faithful dialogue, compelling plot, philosophical asides, broad scope, cross-cultural relevance, clever construction, unique narrative stylings, memorable voice, a timeless quality—all these and more are reasons often given when discussing what it is about a work of fiction that makes it so distinguished or outstanding. The one commonality shared by all the world’s great novels, however, be they past or present, is their remarkable ability to stay with us long after we’ve set the story aside. So it is with Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos).

Published to wide acclaim in his native spain in 2011, the disputed king of Redonda’s most recent offering is a murder mystery par excellence. no mere formulaic thriller, Marías’s tale is one of perception, memory, grief, love, death, complicity, circumstance, doubt, chance, delusion, the multiplicity of motivation, and, of course, the nature of infatuation. Set within the capital city of Madrid and using a violent (and seemingly senseless) murder as its catalyst, the story follows María Dolz, a publishing house employee who entangles herself, however inadvertently at the onset, in the heinous crime’s aftermath.

Click here to read the entire review.

21 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

Being that there are so many ways in which one might consider a book’s overall effect (to say nothing of how certain elements may appeal to one reader over another), it can be rather arduous to convey what it is about a particular work that makes it resonate as it does. To some, prose is paramount. to others, believable characters and their development, with whom a reader can identify or at least empathize. Faithful dialogue, compelling plot, philosophical asides, broad scope, cross-cultural relevance, clever construction, unique narrative stylings, memorable voice, a timeless quality—all these and more are reasons often given when discussing what it is about a work of fiction that makes it so distinguished or outstanding. The one commonality shared by all the world’s great novels, however, be they past or present, is their remarkable ability to stay with us long after we’ve set the story aside. So it is with Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos).

Published to wide acclaim in his native spain in 2011, the disputed king of Redonda’s most recent offering is a murder mystery par excellence. no mere formulaic thriller, Marías’s tale is one of perception, memory, grief, love, death, complicity, circumstance, doubt, chance, delusion, the multiplicity of motivation, and, of course, the nature of infatuation. Set within the capital city of Madrid and using a violent (and seemingly senseless) murder as its catalyst, the story follows María Dolz, a publishing house employee who entangles herself, however inadvertently at the onset, in the heinous crime’s aftermath.

All this information was published over a period of two days, the two days following the murder. Then the item vanished from the press completely, as tends to happen with all news nowadays: people don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened, and to know that the world is full of reckless acts, of dangers, threats and bad luck that only brush past us, but touch and kill our careless fellow human beings, or perhaps they were simply not among the chosen. We live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief, not a trace. We don’t want to go too deeply into anything or linger too long over any event or story, we need to have our attention shifted from one thing to another, to be given a constantly renewed supply of other people’s misfortunes, as if, after each one, we thought: “How dreadful. But what’s next? What other horrors have we avoided? We need to feel that we, by contrast, are survivors, immortals, so feed us some new atrocities, we’ve worn out yesterday’s already.

Once morbid curiosity, fascination, and, perhaps, schadenfreude no longer fuel our fertile imaginations, a murder (nothing more) becomes as disposable as any of the myriad news stories that we’ve somehow indulged as being momentarily relevant to our lives. Marías works this pervasive and perverse social peculiarity to great effect—intriguing us enough to concern ourselves with the fate of his characters (with ever the freedom to simply turn or walk away), yet forever eroding the space around them from which we can watch safely from the periphery. It’s a deliriously intoxicating technique, one evinced by our daily obsession with celebrity scandal, political malfeasance, far-off disaster, or nearby crimes of passion. These truncated news stories and soundbites, in reality, often have not the slightest thing to do with our own lives, but end up somehow consuming us (however briefly) all the same—as if they were somehow vested with the weight of our own personal stake. María is unable to turn away and neither are we.

Whereas so many whodunnits content themselves with little more than revealing the perpetrator and their hackneyed impulses, The Infatuations seeks to explore and confront a much broader purview. with perceptive observations and often tender insights into thought, reason, emotion, judgment, and the murky fringes of reality, Marías draws us into an almost inescapable role of accomplice and witness. He is able to do this so effectively by extracting the reader from the mystery of the murder itself (with which so few of us can identify) and repositioning one within the more familiar confines of love lost, relationships torn asunder, and the inevitable self-doubt which follows.

We tend to hope that, of the people and habits we cherish, no one will die and none will end, not realizing that the only thing that maintains those habits intact is their sudden withdrawal, with no possible alteration or evolution, before they can can abandon us or we abandon them. Anything that lasts goes bad and putrefies, it bores us, turns against us, saturates and wearies us. How many people who once seemed vital to us are left by the wayside, how many relationships wear thin, become diluted for no apparent reason or certainly none of any weight. The only people who do not fail or let us down are those who are snatched from us, the only ones we don’t drop are those who abruptly disappear and so have no time to cause us pain or disappointment. When that happens, we despair momentarily, because we believe we could have continued with them for much longer, with no foreseeable expiry date. That’s a mistake, albeit understandable. continuity changes everything, and something we thought wonderful yesterday would have become a torment tomorrow.

Is the author manipulating us? Are we willing participants? Are we rendered prostrate simply because the story evokes the universal feeling of unrequited desire and heartbreak? What about the abhorrent murder? Is all grief transmutable and therefore inexorable? Are we failing to see beyond all that is shown?

I would never know more than what he told me, and so i would never know anything for sure; yes, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it, that after all these centuries of practice, after so many incredible advances and inventions, we still have no way of knowing when someone is lying; naturally, this both benefits and prejudices all of us equally, and may be our one remaining redoubt of freedom.

Marías’s thirteenth novel (and the tenth to be translated into english), achingly beautiful and seemingly effortless like so much of his writing, could only have been carefully constructed by one possessed of a compassion and discernment alien to lesser writers. The Infatuations is not a flawless outing, but a remarkable and impressive one nonetheless. Marías’s exploration of doubt, truth, life, love, and violence does not answer any of the age-old questions of morality and mortality, but leaves us with the sense that there is much veracity and wisdom to be found within the shadows and gradations. A master of contemporary fiction (and regularly mentioned as a perennial candidate for world literature’s highest honor), Marías is among the finest european writers at work today.

The passing of time exacerbates and intensifies any storm, even though there wasn’t the tiniest cloud on the horizon at the beginning. We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. it advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labors, so respectful and considerate that it never once gives us a sudden prod or a nasty fright. Each morning, it turns up with its soothing, invariable face and tells us exactly the opposite of what is actually happening: that everything is fine and nothing has changed, that everything is just as it was yesterday—the balance of power—that nothing has been gained and nothing lost, that our face is the same, as is our hair and our shape, that the person who hated us continues to hate us and the person who loved us continues to love us. And yet quite the opposite is true, but time conceals this from us with is treacherous minutes and sly seconds, until a strange, unthinkable day arrives, when nothing is as it always was . . .

18 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd and published by Knopf

This piece is by New Directions publicity and Three Percent podcaster, Tom Roberge.

When dealing with any book by French author Michel Houellebecq, it’s almost impossible to discuss the book itself, by itself, so we might as well address this whole thing right now. Yes, he seems (how can we really know, after all; his writerly persona might be precisely that: a persona) to be a bit of a, to put it nicely, antisocial curmudgeon. He seems to have little patience for the literary world and the window-dressing sort of appearances and interviews that coincide with the publication of any novel by a well-known (if not exact well-loved) author. This is, after all, a man whose mother wrote some rather disparaging things about him in her own memoir. And these are all frequent topics of discussion because his narrators, too, possess many of these characteristics. They’re often selfish, apathetic, skeptical, and downright miserable. But, and I’ve been pleading this case for years now, I believe that underneath the surface-level nihilism and general ennui of his novels is an author who truly believes in love, in human beings’ ability to make each other profoundly happy. The ability, he suggests, is within all of us, if only we’d stop worrying about the rest of the crap that defines our modern world.

Which brings us to The Map and the Territory. I’ve read and reread all of Houellebecq’s novels, and though I think The Elementary Particles is brilliant and that Platform is insanely fun, I also think this is his best book, the most accomplished in terms of pacing and plotting, the most stylistically riveting on a page-by-page basis, and the most sophisticated in terms of its themes. And boy oh boy are there a lot of them packed in here, twisted into each other, fighting for control and attacking the reader with their combined power.

Artist Jed Martin is the novel’s central conduit for Houellebecq’s exploration of these themes, and the first section of the book focuses on a series of Martin’s digital prints that are fantastic enlargements of Michelin road maps, with quite a few creative embellishments. The prints critique something that a lot of Americans living in big cities will also recognize: the middle and upper-class romanticization of rural life, of farming, of living off the land, of what they imagine is “a simpler life.” All bullshit, obviously, and not exactly news, but Houellebecq dissects the trend beautifully, mimicking and mocking the obtuse language of the art world at the same time.

But then Martin stops working. Altogether. For years. And when he re-emerges, he decides to become a portrait painter, and yet again he takes dead aim at the prevailing trends of the middle- and upper-class consumers of “intellectual” products, be they works of art or gadgets or something in between. By which I mean he paints portraits of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but puts them in an imaginary scene in which they “Discuss the Future of Information Technology,” their expressions greedy and all-knowing, larger-than-life, terrifying. He also—and this brings me back to the opening paragraph, to the notion of Houellebecq as the antisocial curmudgeon—travels to Ireland to paint a novelist, Michel Houellebecq, who has agreed, after much trepidation, to write the catalog copy for an exhibition of the portraits in exchange for a portrait of himself. This is, and excuse the pun, a stroke of genius. It allows Houellebecq (the writer of the book, as opposed to the writer/character in the book) to confront the personal attacks on his character head-on, to bring the discussion of the prevailing themes that recur in his books into this book, to offer a subtle rebuttal to everything that’s been said about him and his work in the book, rather than having to appear on television to be mocked by a pretentious journalist, or having to endure an endless interview session. “Here,” he seems to be saying, “you want to know what I think about everything that’s been said about me? This is what I think, and this is why I’ve fled to Ireland, to get the hell away from your miserable games.”

There’s also one more theme and plot element that’s thoroughly amazing, but I really don’t want to spoil anything about this book for anyone who might be compelled to read it. Let me just say that it’s both typically Houellebecq-esque and wholly surprising and, of course, provocative. And who doesn’t love being provoked?

4 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khermiri, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Language: Swedish

Country: Sweden/Tunisia
Publisher: Knopf

Why This Book Should Win: It has more heart than any other book on the list, it was translated from a slang dialect called “Rinkeby Swedish,” and confronts racism head-on as a huge problem in Swedish society. [Ed Note: And Jonas has amazing hair.]

Today’s post is by Matthew Jakubowski, a writer and literary journalist who’s written for Bookforum, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Quarterly Conversation, Barrelhouse, and BOMB. He lives in West Philadelphia.

Some people may view this book as a sort of lightweight on the longlist, something thrown in to balance out against heavy hitters like Amos Oz and Edouard Leve, among others.

But I think you only have to take a look at the photo that ran with my review of this book in The National to get a sense of how Khemiri has taken serious topics—intense racism (a real-life sniper who targeted immigrants around Stockholm), abandonment by a parent, despair over one’s direction in life—and done the hard work of finding a playful and uplifting way to write about these things, using rigorous technique on both the word level and in terms of overall structure.

Khemiri’s father is Tunisian, his mother is Swedish, and they raised him near Rinkeby, a suburb about five miles outside Stockholm. A 1998 New York Times article offers this snapshot of the place: “More than 50 per cent of Rinkeby’s residents live on full government benefits, and the town has become stigmatised in Sweden as a haven for welfare cheats and a centre of criminal activity. Ill-spoken Swedish is known throughout the country as ‘Rinkeby Swedish,’ used by urban toughs and middle-class youths eager for a little street credibility.”

Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles has turned this language into English full of playful malapropisms, missing words, and broken syntax that is a reflection of the characters’ struggles, not just fun with word-games.

The book is posed as something done reluctantly, a story that had to be dragged out of its author by the sheer exuberance of Kadir, an old friend of the author’s father, or someone pretending to be Kadir who knows quite a lot about Khemiri’s father—enough to make his son interested to learn something new about the man he’s been estranged from for many years.

From here, we get letters and emails between Kadir and Khemiri, as they pass the narrative mic back and forth. The meat of the story is how hard life was for Khemiri’s father as a Tunisian living in Sweden, and the effects racism had on his family’s life.

We’re shown how strong the anti-immigrant movement in Sweden was in the 1990s, culminating with a sniper who terrorized the public. Khemiri’s Dad is quickly run into the ground by depression and hopelessness after his photography studio is burned down.

Kadir would prefer to gloss over all this and tell a happy story instead. “Your father staked everything on relocating his address to Sweden. All for his love for your mother. Never forget that, Jonas.”

Khemiri offers up a few happy scenes of family life, but can’t minimize “the rage that you can feel for a country that’s stolen your dad.” As a teenager, he identifies proudly as “blatte,” listens to gangster rap, and calls his Dad’s attempts to assimilate the acts of “an Uncle Tom black.” Later, adrift and fighting alcoholism, Khemiri’s Dad abandons his family for nearly two years. “Then you say good-by to the understanding and hi to the hate and start to be ashamed when someone asks about your dad,” Khemiri writes. His father returns but it’s too late to patch things up with his wife. “Dads try to say sorry in a bunch of different languages and layer French declarations of love on Arabic nicknames on Swedish forgive me’s but Moms won’t let herself be calmed in any language.”

Montecore offers a serious commentary on Swedish society and it’s to Khemiri’s great credit that he’s able to turn so many painful elements into an enlightening portrait of immigrant life near Stockholm and a deeply compassionate portrait of his father.

12 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Will Eells on 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s “total novel” that is pretty much the only work of international literature making its way onto the year-end lists at the “big” review outlets. It’s a huge book, and in order to get all three books out at once, Knopf used two Japanese translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel.

For anyone who hasn’t encountered his reviews in the past, Will is one of our most personal and interesting reviewers. He’s reviewed a fair number of Japanese works for us, but is interested in contemporary lit in general. He’s also an aspiring translator who is working on a really interesting project. (One that still needs a publisher.)

In terms of 1Q84, I think most anyone reading this blog is familiar with Murakami in general, and this novel in particular. It’s a book that generated a shitton of hype, and one that is beloved by some (see Michael Orthofer’s review) while leaving others unimpressed (see Scott Esposito’s review). Will falls squarely in the middle and breaks this down pretty well . . .

It seems to me now, based on the few reviews that I have read, that the reception of 1Q84 has indeed fallen into these two camps: absolutely transcendent and absolutely horrific. Neither, in my opinion, captures how I feel 1Q84 is as a novel, especially as just one book in a huge body of work. Because for all its ambition and scope, 1Q84 is just pretty good. There’s a lot of it that is really good and some that is really bad. But, I can tell you exactly how it could’ve been so much better.

Murakami should have never written Book 3.

Click here to read his full review.

12 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like many an English-speaking Murakami fan, I have been waiting to read 1Q84 for almost three years. That’s right, three years, since around January 2009, when news reports from Japan were just announcing that Murakami had finished his latest novel, one still without a title and rumored to be twice as long as Kafka on the Shore. And let me tell you, it has been a long wait.

I discovered Murakami at the end of my sophomore year of high school, in a talk intended for the teachers of my school to learn a little more about Japanese art, literature, and film. Five years later, I had read everything by Murakami available in English translation (and soon a few things in Japanese and in unofficial translations). There was probably a year or so period where Murakami was essentially the only literature I was reading. The reason I tell you all this is to inform you that I can only approach reviewing 1Q84, this near 1000-page behemoth, as an unabashed Murakami super-fan, one who has read the majority of his oeuvre multiple times.

I am certainly not alone in this fanaticism. Murakami is one of those authors that just does that to a certain group of readers. The problem with this kind of fanaticism, one that has unfortunately been horribly exacerbated with the rise of Internet culture, is the phenomenon where fans of a certain thing greet the newest thing as either “the best thing ever” or “the worst thing ever.” In Internet parlance: “OMG!!!” vs. “meh.”

1Q84 in particular sets itself up for this deadly dichotomy because of its insane, “total novel”-aspiring length and because it took those two long years after its release in Japan to be translated into English. Murakami even added another 500 pages to it while we were waiting!

It seems to me now, based on the few reviews that I have read, that the reception of 1Q84 has indeed fallen into these two camps: absolutely transcendent and absolutely horrific. Neither, in my opinion, captures how I feel 1Q84 is as a novel, especially as just one book in a huge body of work. Because for all its ambition and scope, 1Q84 is just pretty good. There’s a lot of it that is really good and some that is really bad. But, I can tell you exactly how it could’ve been so much better.

Murakami should have never written Book 3.

But I’ll back up for a moment. If you’re not familiar, 1Q84 follows two protagonists in alternating chapters: the fitness instructor/assassin Aomame and the aspiring novelist Tengo. Aomame is hired by a wealthy individual to secretly murder the most heinous committers of domestic violence and rape, while Tengo is pushed by his editor to secretly rewrite a brilliant but stylistically flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl. To share any more would likely confuse and spoil the novel. Wondering how these two disparate storylines will converge, and how Tengo and Aomame are connected, are but two of the many pleasures in reading this novel.

The following thoughts about the quality of 1Q84 now refer only to Books 1 and 2. I’ll get to Book 3 in a bit.

For all that’s touted about Murakami’s certain blend of magical realism and science fiction, 1Q84 is probably Murakami’s subtlest work to date. New elements and plot wrinkles are introduced slowly, almost quietly along the way. Instead of a mysterious town filled with unicorns, we get an alternate world where the first noticeable difference is the kind of gun the Japanese policemen are using. Despite the relative quietness of the novel, for the first 600 pages, Murakami is pretty good at slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension and the mystery. The first 200 pages had flown by when I realized that I was hooked, but still knew fairly little about what was going on.

I say “pretty good” because there are some missteps along the way. Murakami protagonists have always been prone to biding their time, and there is a lot of pontificating of “what’s going on here?” instead of action. There is also a bit of a problem with repetition. As both Aomame and Tengo are finding out the same things but at different times, all that thinking they do leads to hearing some of the same information a few times more than maybe is needed.

The go-for-broke, “total-novel” approaching attitude lets 1Q84 explore a handful of interesting themes and ideas. In some ways, 1Q84 feels like a culmination of everything he’s ever written. There are elements from pretty much all of his major works. Critics of Murakami have long complained that he is always telling the same basic story, which in some ways has a nugget of truth in it. But none of the reused elements on display in 1Q84 are especially more prominent than another, and in general they feel like background materials, just part of the tapestry. This allows the novel as a whole to feel new and fresh, while making the common Murakamian aspects—disappearing women, parallel/alternate worlds, powerful non-human beings—more like special Easter Eggs spread throughout the text for the fans.

The problem with having so many themes to tie the novel together is that none of them really stick. The relationship between fiction and reality is one theme, but the largest and most compelling theme of 1Q84 is the importance of exercising free will. This is expressed most successfully against the backdrop of religious cults, but even that tends to drift in and out of focus. Murakami gets to vent about many other disappointments in Japanese society, including the literary and publishing culture, the failures of the 1960s student movement against the strong arming of the government, the universal problem of abuse of power by the strong against the weak, but again, only to the extent that they take great prominence in some sections only to fade away again. Eventually, Murakami also undermines his message of good vs. evil with a kind of moral relativism in a way that, instead of allowing for good philosophical rumination, leads to a conflict that, in the end, feels like it has no stakes.

Despite all these criticisms, 1Q84 is genuinely engaging 95% of the time, and the climax of Book 2 brings the work to a near fever pitch. Which brings us to the problem of Book 3.

Book 3, ultimately, squanders every shred of excitement and pacing and brings the book to a screeching halt. A new character is brought in for narration, but the majority of his chapters are spent trying to figure out what the readers already know.

In Japan, these refreshers might have been necessary. Book 3 came out a full year after Books 1 and 2 were released. That’s a long time, and 1Q84 is a long book. It’s very easy to lose track of everything that has been building up. But for English readers, these chapters are frustrating, and excruciatingly boring. For Book 3 to work at all as a part of a larger work, Murakami would’ve had to have somehow continued the excitement found at the end of Book 2 and then increased the tension even more to the “real” climax that should’ve been found at the end of Book 3. That’s basic novel writing. Instead, the climax happens in the middle of the book, followed by what is basically exposition, leading to another, arguably smaller climax.

Book 3 is really more like a sequel to the events of Books 1 and 2. In Japan, it probably felt like one, like a separate, independent story. But in America, presented as the third act in one larger work, Book 3 completely ruins the shape and flow of the novel. This might have been forgiven if the chapters with Aomame and Tengo had more things happening, but frankly, they don’t. Almost nothing happens in Book 3 that renders its very existence necessary. And because this whole fiasco comes at the end, it leaves the reader with a very bitter taste of 1Q84 as a whole.

In the end, 1Q84 succeeds and fails by its own ambition. By throwing everything he possibly could into the pot, Murakami leaves us with a lot of great sequences and a great central mystery, but it also forces us to accept a lot of things we don’t want or need. There’s a short but very memorable section in Book 2 where Murakami seems to be directly expressing frustrations with his critics. It refers to the novel Tengo is ghostwriting but it could refer to almost anything in the Murakami oeuvre, and especially to 1Q84 itself:

One reviewer concluded his piece, “As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious questions marks. This may well be the author’s intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness.’ While this may be fine for a debut work, if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture.”

Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story “put together in an exceptionally interesting way” that “carries the reader along to the very end,” who could possibly call such a writer “lazy”?

The greatest irony of that passage is that if Murakami had ended 1Q84 at Book 2, this passage would’ve perfectly represented the merits of this gigantic, ambitious, flawed novel. But instead, Murakami chose to extend the adventure into a third book, in a way that seems to promise new levels of understanding but ultimately failing to deliver anything worthwhile. (This is made all the more tragic for the way the translations of Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel don’t feel like separate translations at all. No easy task.) If you haven’t yet read 1Q84, I implore you to do so. Just take a good, long break before you start reading Book 3, or, do yourself a favor, and don’t even read Book 3 at all.

6 April 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, a relatively new biography on the author of Suite Francaise by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt. This originally came out in France a few years back, but is now available from Knopf in Euan Cameron’s translation.

Jessica LeTourneur studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review, the University of Missouri Press, and W. W. Norton & Company. Currently, Jessica is the copyeditor for the journal Southern California Quarterly, and is finishing up her Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Since 2004, the name Irene Nemirovsky has been primarily associated with her bestselling and haunting novel, Suite Francaise. Entrusted to her daughters in a suitcase in 1942, the manuscript remained untouched until 1998 when Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise, resolved to type out the handwritten novel with the aid of a magnifying glass. Published to worldwide acclaim in September 2004, Nemirovsky’s interrupted—not unfinished—novel has defined her literary celebrity, at least in the United States. Until now. With The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt provide readers will an insightful and illuminating account of a vibrant, talented, and complex woman whose life was cut all too short when she perished in Auschwitz at Nazi hands in 1942.

Celebrated as primarily a French writer, Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, a Jewish Ukrainian, the only daughter of a successful businessman and narcissistic mother. Her bourgeois childhood led to extended vacations in France—where she became proficient in the language—which proved extraordinarily useful later in her life. In January 1918, the Nemirovsky family, fearing further ramifications of the Bolshevik Revolution from their current home in Moscow, fled their home country and emigrated first to Finland, then later to France. It was during this time, that “because of boredom, purer and more all encompassing than in Kiev or Petersburg, that she started to tell herself stories, ‘all kinds of stories, which gave me great pleasure and which I returned to day after day.’” . . .

Click here to read the full piece.

6 April 11 | Chad W. Post |

Since 2004, the name Irene Nemirovsky has been primarily associated with her bestselling and haunting novel, Suite Francaise. Entrusted to her daughters in a suitcase in 1942, the manuscript remained untouched until 1998 when Nemirovsky’s daughter, Denise, resolved to type out the handwritten novel with the aid of a magnifying glass. Published to worldwide acclaim in September 2004, Nemirovsky’s interrupted—not unfinished—novel has defined her literary celebrity, at least in the United States. Until now. With The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt provide readers will an insightful and illuminating account of a vibrant, talented, and complex woman whose life was cut all too short when she perished in Auschwitz at Nazi hands in 1942.

Celebrated as primarily a French writer, Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, a Jewish Ukrainian, the only daughter of a successful businessman and narcissistic mother. Her bourgeois childhood led to extended vacations in France—where she became proficient in the language—which proved extraordinarily useful later in her life. In January 1918, the Nemirovsky family, fearing further ramifications of the Bolshevik Revolution from their current home in Moscow, fled their home country and emigrated first to Finland, then later to France. It was during this time, that “because of boredom, purer and more all encompassing than in Kiev or Petersburg, that she started to tell herself stories, ‘all kinds of stories, which gave me great pleasure and which I returned to day after day.’”

This comprehensive biography of Irene Nemirovsky’s is the first of its kind to explore the details and nuances of both her complicated personal life, and her successful literary life. Originally written in French and published in France in 2007, where it achieved bestselling status, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is available in English for the first time. Part biography, part literary analysis, and part history, coauthors Philipponnat and Lienhardt have endeavored to familiarize readers with the life of this extraordinary writer, and contextualize her short stories and novels within the backdrop of the tumultuous period of history in which she lived and wrote.

“’And so, I regret nothing. I have been happy. I have been loved. I am still loved, I know that’s true, in spite of the distance between us, in spite of the separation.’ She leaves behind a husband and two dearly beloved little girls. As well as an unfinished novel, Suite Francaise.”

With these concluding sentences of the prologue, coauthors Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt summarize Irene Nemirovsky’s life in her own words. While she enjoyed immense success during her lifetime, today Nemirovsky is best known for her tragic death and the incomplete manuscript she left behind, largely untouched and read by only ten people in fifty-plus years. By narrating Nemirovsky’s arrest, deportation to Auschwitz, and subsequent death, the authors cleverly establish a foundation from which to build their narrative upon. By knowing what tragedy surrounded the end of her life, readers can better appreciate the success and critical acclaim that she possessed during her most prolific literary years. Having established the end of the story, so to speak, the authors then turn their attention to chronologically narrating Nemirovsky’s life for the remainder of the biography.

_The Life of Irene Nemirovsky_’s organization into three parts establishes a strong frame from which to support a woman’s life story which is filled with a myriad of personal blows and professional knockouts. Nemirovsky was a prolific writer, and happily she left behind a veritable treasure trove of primary sources such as handwritten notebooks containing entire manuscripts and outlines for stories, hundreds of letters, and newspaper clippings containing reviews of her work. Philipponnat and Lienhardt pieced these puzzle pieces together to create a portrait of Nemirovsky’s literary processes and personal feelings. It is in brilliant passages such as this that readers gained unparalleled insight into Nemirovsky’s identity as a writer:

I never make a plan. I begin by describing for my own purposes the physical appearance and a full biography of all the characters, even the less important ones. In this way, even before getting down to the actual writing itself, I know my characters perfectly, even, it seems to me, down to the way they speak; I know how they will behave, not just in the book but throughout their lives. When this is done, I begin to write.

The earlier part of the biography focuses upon Nemirovsky’s personal life, childhood, and how the dark wave of history charted her life on a course that no one foresaw, but the majority of the narrative contextualizes Nemirovsky’s literary life. All autobiographical references become ancillary to the primary plot chronicling her writing process, and the success she received by way of sales and critical reception. Even her confused relationship with her national and religious identity—though by heritage Jewish and Ukrainian—Nemirovsky considered herself French first and foremost, are tangential to the prolonged analyses of Nemirovsky’s short stories and novels. The problem in these chapters is that an overabundance of literary criticism bogs down an otherwise seamless narrative, and is lost upon those not intimately associated with the stories and novels that Philipponnat and Lienhardt chose to highlight; some are not even available in English, such as an intriguing-sounding novel The Wine of Solitude, whose themes and critical reception dominate a portion of this biography.

The last few chapters will contain themes and historical narrative that most readers familiar with Suite Francaise will recognize: the German invasion of France in 1940, the subsequent flight of thousands of French citizens in June of the same year, and subsequently Nemirovsky’s inspiration to pen what she referred to as her magnum opus, and we know as Suite Francaise. Planned in three parts, only two were completed at the time of her arrest and deportation in July 1942. She knew it was coming. The Life of Irene Nemirovsky shines and moves in its final pages with such passages:

On 11th July, Irene Nemirovsky walked up to the Male woods to enjoy the last remaining pleasures that were not forbidden to her. She was feeling cheerful, too cheerful, as if all her anxiety had ebbed back to distant shores. It was a very peaceful, almost miraculous morning . . . These were her last words as a writer. “I’ve written a great deal lately [referring to Suite Francaise] I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.”

Two days later Irene Nemirovsky was arrested and deported. Several months later her husband, Michel was arrested and led off to Le Creusot prison prior to his deportation to Drancy. His final words to his and Irene’s daughters: “Never part from this suitcase for it contains your mother’s manuscript.”

Despite several chapters heavy in literary criticism, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is an accomplished work possessing keen insightfulness into the life and literature of an author famous and bestselling in France in her day, but in light of the war and her Jewish heritage, was largely forgotten by the literary world, until earlier this century. Nemirovsky’s body of work, as well as her life, deserves to be recognized, respected, and understood once again. So spoke a literary critic in 1946, “Irene Nemirovsky does not leave her admirers empty-handed. She worked up to the last moment. Her books do not stop with her. Some precious manuscripts, together with her published work, will reinforce her literary survival.” Thankfully, due to the diligence and creativity of these two authors, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky will contribute to her literary survival both in America, and abroad.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of the most anticipated books of the year has to be Murakami Haruki’s (or Haruki Murakami’s) 1Q84, an epically long book that Random House is bringing out in October.1 And to warm up the publicity machine, they just released an image of the cover and a blog post from Chip Kidd discussing the design.

Logistically the title is a book designer’s dream, because its unique four characters so easily adapt it to a very strong, iconic treatment. The plot follows two seemingly unconnected stories that eventually weave together. The first involves a woman named Aomame, who in the opening scene finds herself descending a service staircase off a busy elevated highway in Tokyo to escape a traffic jam. Once she gets to the bottom and out onto ground level, she eventually comes to believe that she has entered an alternate reality, one only slightly different than what she had known. She refers to this new dimension in her mind as 1Q84 (the book takes place in 1984 and in Japanese ‘Q’ sounds just like ‘9′), with the Q standing for “Question Mark. A world that bears a question.” This concept becomes one of the novel’s major themes.

Upon reading the manuscript, it soon occurred to me that the duality of Aomame’s situation could be represented by an interaction of the book’s jacket with the binding/cover underneath. By using a semi-transparent vellum for the jacket, and printing the woman’s image in a positive/negative scheme with the title on the outside layer and the rest of her on the binding, once the jacket is wrapped around the book it ‘completes’ the picture of her face. But something odd is definitely going on, and before the reader even reads a word, he or she is forced to consider the idea of someone going from one plane of existence to another.

1 Now I’m not going to tell the largest publisher in America how to do their job, but please please please please please don’t publish this as a straightforward run-of-the-mill hardcover. This isn’t Stieg Larsson or Suze Orman—it’s a book that could be a major cultural event. And not only is the idea of paying $30 for a large, unwieldy tome totally insane, it’s also incredibly passé, as demonstrated by the genius marketing of 2666. I’m guessing you—the anthropomorphized version of an inanimate, heartless corporation that exists in my mind—are thinking that your “mature” readers will shell out way too much of their retirement income to read this “serious literary work they heard about on The NPR,” whereas the hipsters will download the $15 ebook and show off their iPads by flipping imaginary pages and posing in subway stations. And sure, you may well be right. But that’s totally irrelevant. What matters here is long-term image management. You don’t want to be “that dinosaur press” anymore, do you? I mean, you must know we all laugh behind your back at parties about how out-of-touch you are with your non-musty offices and your corporate stationary. Book publishing isn’t about money, it’s about showing off how smart you are and about creating intellectual objects that other people crave. Will I read 1Q84 when it comes out? For sure. But if it’s in a multi-volume form housed in a cardboard slipcase, I’ll read it in public. Rather than completely concede to the advent of e-everything, it would be a public service to the last remaining readers if you gave us all an object that we could cherish. An object that is inherently cooler (in a retro way) than the iPad. Instead of having Chip Kidd just design the cover, give him the opportunity to create a stunning object. Or don’t. I’m sure you’ll still make enough profit off this to feel justified. Justified, but incredibly empty on the inside.

21 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

Click here for all past and future posts.

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

Language: Hebrew
Country: Israel
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 576

Why This Book Should Win: David Grossman won the German Peace Prize this past year; this was one of the only translated novels to consistently show up on year-end “best-of” lists.

Today’s entry is from Monica Carter, BTBA panelist who also runs Salonica, a “virtual salon dedicated to promoting international literature.”

A stunning achievement in war literature, David Grossman’s novel captures war and it’s destruction in the here and now better than any other novel of this epoch. It is a novel that does what war can’t: it explains, reflects, and examines the lives who are directly and indirectly swept into its torrents. It presents the reality surviving war without mawkish attempts at emotional manipulation, instead offering the stark reality of attempting to regain a sliver of a former self once the war has done its damage.

Grossman’s work has not received the attention he deserves from American readers, but this is the novel that showcases his skill as a writer, his themes of war and isolation, and the Arab-Israeli conflict and his powerful ability to write novels of meaning and substance. It’s difficult to find a bad review of this novel that is a testament to his appeal despite the controversial subject matter.

To the End of the Land is an intricate epic revolving around the love triangle of Ora, Ilan, and Avram. Alternating between present day and past memories, the reader witnesses Ora’s escape into her memories to avoid the reality of what she considers the inevitable—the death of her son Ofer who just sent her son off to war again. Grossman parallels her psychological journey of futility with her physical journey on the Israel Trail. Ora is a unique, complete voice, rich and multifaceted, that literature needs to hear.

Grossman focuses on Ora and Avram’s—her teenage lover and a POW survivor from the Egyptian war—walk to the Galilee which was the trip she had planned to take with Ofer. Her husband Ilan, who was the best friend of Avram, and her eldest son, Adam, have abandoned her to travel together to South America. She literally drags Avram with her, who is lost in a haze of drugs and depression, because she wants to tell him about Ofer. Avram is Ofer’s father, but Avram let him be raised as Ora and Ilan’s son because he was too emotionally and mentally ruined after brutal treatment at the hands of Egyptian guards. She knows that if she is not home she can avoid ever receiving any bad news from the authorities about Ofer. Grossman expertly shows the excruciating moments of not knowing and waiting to know if her son has died:

During this eternal moment, she, and faraway Ofer, and everything that occurs in the vast space between them, are all deciphered in a flash of knowledge, like a densely woven fabric, so that the very act of her standing by the kitchen table, and the fact that she stupidly continues to peel the potato—her fingers on the knife whiten now—and all her trivial, routine household movements, and all the innocent, ostensibly random fragments of reality around her, become nothing less than vital steps in a mysterious dance, a slow and solemn dance, whose unwitting partners are Ofer, and his friends preparing for battle, and the senior officers scanning the map of future battles, and the rows of tanks she saw on the outskirts of the meeting point, and the dozens of smaller vehicles that moved among the tanks, and the people in the villages and towns over there, the other ones, who would watch through drawn blinds as soldiers and tanks drove down their streets and alleys, and the quick-as-lightening boy who might hit Ofer tomorrow or the day after or perhaps even tonight, with a rock or a bullet or a rocket (strangely, the boy’s movement is the only thing that violates and complicates the slow heaviness of the entire dance), and the notifiers, who might be refreshing their procedures at the Jerusalem army offices right now . . . Everyone, everyone is part of this massive, all-encompassing process, and the people killed in the last terrorist attack are part of it too, unaware of their role: they are the casualties whose death will be avenged by the soldiers off on a new campaign.

Ora had promised him that she would not talk about Ofer to Avram because it was too difficult to him. Afraid that she will lose her memory of Ofer’s life, she begs Avram to listen and learn about who Ofer is. Gradually during the journey, Avram grows stronger and is able to engage in listening to Ora recount her memories of Ofer and brings their relationship to a deeper, more connected level.

This is not a novel that answers questions, or even asks them, its purpose is to expose the loss of war—the lives of those we lose and the pieces of life lost by those who survive. We know nothing good comes of war, but in the end in comes down to managing the pain of memory and trauma so that the war doesn’t continue within us once the fighting has stopped. To the End of the Land should win because the translation is faultless the message has the most to give us in the current war-driven atmosphere that offers no redemption. David Grossman also understand war better than many having lost his one of his sons while in war while finishing this novel. To convey his own grief through literature of the highest quality proves his dedication to life as art and to helping others cope with the tragedy of war.

14 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’m home sick—damn winter colds that are even resistant to Advil Cold & Sinus, the Wonder Drug—so it’s a perfect day for a guest post from intern Will Eells. You might remember Will from his review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, and he will be writing more reviews for us in the future, including one of “The Changeling,” the new Kenzaburo Oe novel coming out from Grove this spring. Anyway, Will’s a huge Murakami fan—even did a translation of a previously untranslated Murakami story for his translation class project—and was very intrigued by this situation regarding the new Murakami novel . . .

It was reported a few days ago that Haruki Murakami’s newest novel 1Q84 (my favorite way of saying this is “Q-teen Eighty-four”) has all but demolished sales records this year and is the top-selling book in Japan for 2009, selling at least a million copies for both volume one and volume two. From The Literary Saloon:

Tohan said 1Q84 was the first literary work to top the year’s best-seller list since it began compiling the data in 1990.

Who is the competition? Mainichi Daily news offers some (worrying) insight in their own report, Murakami’s 1Q84 tops 2009 bestseller ranking:

“In second place was 読めそうで読めない間違いやすい漢字 (Easily confused kanji which look readable but aren’t), published by Futami Shobo Publishing Co. Third place was secured by ドラゴンクエスト9 星空の守り人 大冒険プレイヤーズガイ (Great adventure player’s guide to Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies), published by Shueisha.”

It’s pretty cool to see that Murakami is finally seen as someone “literary” by the Japanese after years of being considered light pop-lit (he’s got an awesomely bitter short story called “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman about his disgust with Japanese literary critics), and it’s even cooler to see that people are genuinely excited about his work. On the other hand, although Japan is typically thought of to be a nation of readers, their top selling books are overall pretty lame, even after accounting the fact that almost every person and their dog is playing Dragon Quest IX in Japan right now. Looking through the rest of the top 10, I only discovered one(!!) other piece of fiction, and the rest of the list being rather light-weight non-fiction books like new weight-loss and “health” guides and more language trivia.

All of this means of course that American publishers are also very excited and want to get the book out as fast as possible. And of course Knopf and Vintage, who have published all of Murakami’s other work in America, will be publishing 1Q84 as well.

Normally this would pose no problem at all, but Murakami himself is throwing a huge curveball towards the American publishers. And how is he doing that? He’s currently writing Volume 3, and it’s not even being released in Japan until next summer.

So what does Knopf do now? They want to get it published as soon as they can (but without rushing, so we can have a good translation . . . right, Knopf?), but I can’t think of any single work that was published in more than one installment in the U.S. Apparently, this is the solution:

UK and Commonwealth rights, excluding Canada, have been acquired and Harvill Secker will publish the first two volumes in a single edition simultaneously with Knopf in the States in September 2011. The paperback editions will be published by Vintage. The first two books are being translated by Jay Rubin and the third by Philip Gabriel.

This, my friends, is madness. Knopf is fusing volume one and volume two into a single work, as they assumedly planned to all along, but not only can they not wait for volume three to come out, they won’t give Jay Rubin the extra time to translate it and are handing the next part for Philip Gabriel to work on separately.

It’s fascinating, and a little scary, to have two translators working on what’s officially supposed to be one work. By now, Jay Rubin has translated the majority of Murakami’s works, and besides the early stuff Alfred Birnbaum tackled, Philip Gabriel has been responsible for a good chunk of Murakami’s work as well, including Kafka on the Shore. They’re both great translators that I trust with Murakami’s work. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to translate 1Q84 the same way, so it poses some interesting questions as to what’s going to happen. Will they be communicating with each other? Will they be reading each other’s manuscripts and collaborating? Since typically Japanese editors don’t exercise the kind of creative control that Western editors are typically thought to have, Jay Rubin is known to act as an editor for Murakami as he translates (which he even does with Murakami’s involvement, which in one case resulted in revisions in the Japanese from the hardcover edition to the paperback), but does Philip Gabriel have the same editorial vision? There’s no telling how a sudden third volume will effect 1Q84 as a whole anyway, so how will that affect how the readers see the novel both in the original and in the translation? Will Vintage’s paperback version be one or two books?

It’s a lot of stuff to think about, and we won’t find out what happens until both volumes are finally published sometime in late 2011.

16 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday 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.



Detective Story by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson. (Hungary, Knopf)

This is one of two Kertesz titles that could’ve made this year’s Best Translated Book fiction longlist, the other being The Pathseeker, which was released by Melville House shortly after Detective Story came out from Knopf. (Ironically, these two books were originally published in one volume in Hungary.)

I have to say that it’s pretty heartening when a Nobel Prize-winning author leaves a big the biggest publisher for an indie press, and in a way it’s too bad that both books didn’t make our list.

Eurozine has a very informative essay by Tim Wilkinson about both of these books.

Detective Story is a novel set in Latin America and written by Anotonio Martens, a former member of the “Corps” (an organization like the KGB, SS, etc.) who has been jailed for his involvement in the murder of Federigo and Enrique Salinas. This novel is Martens’s chance to tell his side of the story and how this murder came about.

It’s a tight, interesting story that, as Michael Orthofer alludes to is greatly disturbing for its universality.

I don’t want to give away too much, but the real power of this book comes from the reader knowing that Federigo and Enrique are innocent, while reading a firsthand account of how the Corps formed their beliefs and what they decided to do about their suspicions.

Another disturbing aspect of this book is the casual way members of the Corps talked about torture devices. This section involves a statue on Marens’s colleague’s desk:

It consisted of a base on which stood two uprights ending in forks. Resting on the forks was a rod, which in turn supported a tiny human figure in such a way that it passed between the bent knees and the wrists handcuffed together behind the knees. A devastating contraption, no two ways about it. Diaz glowered at it.

“What on earth is that?” he asked.

“That? It’s a Boger swing,” Rodriguez responded with great affection.

“Boger?” Diaz fussed. “What do you mean, Boger?”

“That’s the name of the fellow who invented it,” Rodriguez explained. [. . .]

“This bit here”—Rodriguez traced a small circle over it with his finger—“is freed up. You can do with him what you will.” He looked up at Diaz and grinned. I might as well not have been there—which is just as well as I probably only would have stuttered. That reflects badly on a person. “Or else,” Rodriguez continued, “you can squat down here, by his mug, and ask him whatever you want to know.” [. . .]

“What in the blue blazes do you need it for?” [Diaz] inquired in a fatherly tone. “We’ve got every sort of plaything. All you have to do is press a button, and it switches on an electric current. That’s what they use the world over these days: clean and convenient. Isn’t that enough for you?”

Kertesz is one of three Nobel Prize winners on the longlist (Saramago and Laxness being the others), and his Nobel acceptance speech is available online and worth taking a look at. I’ll end here with an interesting, and somewhat relevant quote:

It is often said of me – some intend it as a compliment, others as a complaint – that I write about a single subject: the Holocaust. I have no quarrel with that. Why shouldn’t I accept, with certain qualifications, the place assigned to me on the shelves of libraries? Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust? One does not have to choose the Holocaust as one’s subject to detect the broken voice that has dominated modern European art for decades. I will go so far as to say that I know of no genuine work of art that does not reflect this break. It is as if, after a night of terrible dreams, one looked around the world, defeated, helpless.

8 October 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

As we mentioned earlier, Ecco and Knopf have competing editions of Tolstoy’s War and Peace out now. Newsweek covers the controversy, and even manages to mention a few things about the art of translating. Overall, they favor the Knopf edition:

Currently two publishers are feuding over rival editions of a book that was published—well, the publication date is one of the things they’re feuding about. Last month Ecco Press brought out a much shorter version of Tolstoy’s masterpiece about Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, translated by Andrew Bromfield. This edition constitutes Tolstoy’s first attempt at the novel, which he published in 1866 in a Russian literary magazine. Tolstoy would spend another three years revising and enlarging his initial vision, ultimately producing the much longer novel familiar to modern readers. That is the version being published this month by Knopf and newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the couple whose earlier translation of “Anna Karenina” became a best seller when Oprah Winfrey picked it as one of her book-club titles in 2004.

In the months leading up to publication, the two publishers took a few potshots at each other, with Knopf editor LuAnn Walther accusing Ecco of making “a serious mistake.” Walther even asked Pevear to draft a response to the Ecco version. Lately both houses have scaled back the rhetoric. Daniel Halpern, Ecco’s publisher, settled for saying in a recent interview that “anything that gets Tolstoy into the headlines has to be viewed as good news.” Walther refuses to comment further on the fracas. “It’s time to let the critics decide,” she says. But she does address what is perhaps a more pertinent question for the general reader: why does the world need yet another translation of “War and Peace,” and why now? “Because,” she says after a long pause, “it’s the greatest book ever written, and it’s never been done like this before. Because all the previous translations left things out and got things wrong. Because it is a great moment to be reading Tolstoy, because we’re at war. And because Richard and Larissa were willing to do it.”

3 October 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

We mentioned this a while ago, but Ecco and Knopf are at it again over their competing editions of War & Peace. Things appear to have taken a nasty turn. According to Ecco’s publisher, Dan Halpern:

“Knopf was evidently so concerned about our competing translation that they had their translators write a response to our edition, which was circulated to reviewers, long before either book came out. Unfortunately, in preparing that response, they failed to consider the American edition and marketing campaign, and actually attacked the British edition of the ‘Original Version’ (which appeared earlier than the American edition). Not surprisingly, Mr. Pevear does not address the Ecco translation in any substantive or meaningful way, but instead concerns himself with how the British publicized their edition. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Mr. Pevear doesn’t actually read the original Russian.”

I wonder if this controversy is going to drive any sales?

10 September 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

The New York Times had a really fantastic article about Knopf’s archives at the University of Texas. It details some of the authors and books they’ve rejected:

For almost a century, Knopf has been the gold standard in the book trade, publishing the works of 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors as well as 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history. Recently, however, scholars trolling through the Knopf archive have been struck by the number of reader’s reports that badly missed the mark, especially where new talent was concerned. The rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”), Isaac Bashevis Singer (“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again”), Anaïs Nin (“There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic”), Sylvia Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”) and Jack Kerouac (“His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so”). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (too racy) and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (“hopelessly bad”).

This rejection note is definitely the highlight though, and writing something like this is the dream of everyone who has ever had to wade through the slush pile:

“This time there’s no point in trying to be kind,” it said. “Your manuscript is utterly hopeless as a candidate for our list. I never thought the subject worth a damn to begin with and I don’t think it’s worth a damn now. Lay off, MacDuff.”

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