Tomorrow morning we will unveil the 25 works of fiction that made the “Best Translated Book of the Year” longlist, but as a prelude, I thought I’d highlight a few titles that didn’t make it and a couple of magazines that deserve some special recognition.
A twenty-five title longlist might seem like a lot, but it was actually pretty difficult to choose the 25 best fiction titles from all of the great works of international fiction that came out this year. And inevitably a few worthy titles had to be left off. Arguments could be made for any number of titles that didn’t make it, but the ones I think deserve honorable mention are:
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions). Ferrante’s first book, Days of Abandonment really put Europa Editions on the map, and this book is really good as well.
Knowledge of Hell by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Cliff Landers (Dalkey Archive). Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive said that this was one of the best translations Dalkey published this year, and that it is a “really intricate, sophisticated piece of translating. The book is very complicated, and I completely agree that Cliff did a remarkable job with this.
The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter Fogtdal, translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally (Hawthorne Books). Joanna Scott blurbed this book, saying “There’s a potent mix of heartbreak and hilarity in this vividly imagined novel . . . The dwarf Sorine is completely spellbinding.” Larissa Kyzer agreed in the review she did for us.
To Siberia by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born (Graywolf). Out Stealing Horses, last year’s breakout novel for Petterson—and in some sense for Graywolf as well—was a finalist for the Best Translated Book award. There’s more Petterson to come — Graywolf is doing I Curse the River of Time, which is a finalist for this year’s Nordic Prize — so he’ll have more chances.
The most beautifully designed book that didn’t make the longlist has to be Bohumil Hrabal’s Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press). The book itself sounds fantastic—“On its surface a verbatim record of an oral interview conducted by Hungarian journalist László Szigeti, the book confuses and confounds with false starts, digressions, and philosophical asides.”—and although you can’t tell from the online image, the book itself is very sharp and the pages are very creamy (as fellow panelist Jeff Waxman called them).
If the year actually started in October 2007, sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre by Dolores Dorante would’ve definitely made the poetry list. It was translated by Jen Hofer and published by Counterpath, one of the most interesting new presses out there. Steve Dolph is a huge fan of this book—if only its publication had been delayed a few months . . .
In terms of magazines, Absinthe, Calque, and Two Lines are three of the most impressive translation-oriented publications out there. (Along with Words Without Borders, of course.) All three are well edited, filled with exciting content, and beautifully produced. I especially like the unique size and shape of Two Lines. Not to mention a subscription to any one of these would make a fantastic holiday present . . . Just saying.
That’s it for now. Tomorrow we’ll release the complete longlist . . .
This is the eighth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.
Feverish and hallucinatory, this early novel of Antunes centers around a psychiatrist who participated in the war between Portugal and Angola and hates the practice of psychiatry. Very intense, vitriolic, and occasionally funny (well, at least in one section), this novel is very representative of Antunes, especially early in his career before he became more comfortable with varying his tone, working in more black humor, etc.
I wrote a full review of this back when it came out, and stand by my statement that it’s not his best book. (This recent review in Quarterly Conversation echoes those sentiments. It really is like Faulkner without the funny.)
Ben Lytal’s review in the New York Sun is more forgiving:
But finally, in the long haul of Mr. Antunes’s demanding and effectively overwritten screed, we realize that his narrator is hallucinating, flopping from one memory to the other with such radical accompanying sensory disorientation for the sheer bitter irony of it. To go a little crazy: It’s his ultimate rebellion against psychiatry — or at least it’s his weekend release. Typically Portuguese, perhaps, the literary art of Mr. Antunes turns his point-blank negativity into a refined, self-consuming protest: the psychological novel that can’t believe in itself.
Nevertheless, Antunes is an amazing writer—one of the most important Portuguese writers of all-time, and one of the most talented working today.
There is another book of Antunes’s coming out this fall— What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? which is coming out from W.W. Norton in September. And as a special bonus, Antunes is going to be coming to America for the first time in years. He’s going to be in New York—at NYU and the NY Public Library, I believe—around September 22nd, and will be in Washington D.C. on the 26th. I’ll post more about this—including the flap copy—in the near future, after I start reading the book. . . .
Antonio Lobo Antunes’s books contain many of the things that are fantastic about contemporary literature; at the same time, these books exemplify a lot of the traits that scare people off from literature in translation.
This may sound stupid, but even his name is a problem. Where to shelve it in the bookstore—under “Lobo”? under “Antunes”? (Antunes is correct, although I’ve found his titles in both places in a countless number of stores.) But it’s the text itself that poses the most problems to American readers:
The sea of the Algarve is made of cardboard like theater scenery, and the English don’t realize it: they conscientiously spread their towels on the sawdust sand, protect themselves with dark glasses from the paper sun, stroll enthralled on the stage of Albufeira where public employees disguised as carnival barkers, squatting on the ground, inflict on them Moroccan necklaces secretly manufactured by the tourism board, and end the afternoon by anchoring in artificial esplanades, where they’re served make-believe drinks in nonexistent glasses that leave in the mouth the flavorless taste of the whiskey furnished the actors on television dramas. After the Alentejo [. . .]
The opening sentence is almost baiting . . . not only is it a pointed critique of English tourist constructed out of a seemingly endless series of clauses, on a more basic level the references to Algarve, Albufeira and Alentejo are immediately disorienting to most American (at least) readers. But place names are just the first layer of obstacles an average reader is faced with—next up are the references to the Angolan war. This war plays a huge role in many of Antunes’s books, due in part to the fact that Antunes himself was a veteran of this war, which really was a mess. After one gets their historical bearings (the Angola War of Independence lasted from 1961-74 ending after a leftist military coup took place in Lisbon) a reader still has to figure out what’s going on, since Antunes’s narrator (named Antonio Lobo Antunes) mashes together events from the Angolan war with his work as a psychiatrist at a Lisbon mental institution with the present moment of his drive back from the southern coast to Portugal’s capital city with very few linguistic indicators (at least at the beginning) as to where you are.
In other words, this isn’t the easiest of books to approach. Yet, a bit of patience and outside research opens up Antunes’s labyrinthine, carefully wrought sentences, which draw the reader into the shattered world of a man recovering from a broken marriage who has journeyed through “hell” (aka the mental institution) and is trying to get his shit together. For me, in the second chapter when all of this clicked into place, I immediately fell in love with the book, with its complicated structure and feverish rhythms.
Aside from Fado Alexandrino, I’ve read all the Antunes books translated into English, gotten readers reports on the rest, and helped acquire this while I was at Dalkey. (Although Clifford Landers’s exquisite translation didn’t arrive until after I’d left, so this is the first time I’ve read the book.) So to be honest, I’m predisposed to appreciate this novel.
This was Antunes’s third novel, part of an ill-defined psychiatric trilogy that also includes Memória de Elefante and Os Cus de Judas. It was originally written in 1980 (though most reviews are citing 1983—not sure where that came from) and is very raw. There’s a moment around page 100 where we get a glimpse of the books Antunes will come to write.
It’s during a flashback to the mental hospital times, when a young groom arrives begging to be admitted as insane. See, he’s run away from his wedding because he’s already married with children and terrified of the consequences from all various parties. Of course, the family of the bride figures this all out—his former marriage, his escape to the asylum—and the bride’s mother goes into a six-page monologue describing the situation in a wildly energetic, often hilarious fashion that’s almost impossible to excerpt seeing how tied into itself every line is.
“This is a disgrace, doctor. We’ve been waiting at the Sao Jorge castle since eleven o’clock, the bride’s family came all the way from Torres Novas for it, you know, even a major, even a judge are there, people of position, people of influence, and him calling every half hour from one place and another, Don’t worry, I’m on my way, I’ve been looking for the best man, the best man forgot his ID at home, the man at the Registry has diarrhea, he stopped for a beer and I’m here waiting, it’ll just be a minute, and us believing it in good faith, don’t you worry I’m on my way, and us in our innocence swallowing it all, some photographs were taken with the peacocks, you could see the river, people chatted [. . .] the bride’s brothers went looking for him, one of them was even going to be a priest and owns an appliance store and he went too in spite of his ulcer, he’s very sensitive and can’t get upset, any little thing and he starts spewing blood, they searched his room, found out he was married and living with a trollop and three children behind the slaughterhouse, an old building with kitchen access, the poor bride fainted, if she doesn’t go off her rocker from grief it’ll be a miracle ’cause I’ve seen it happen over less [. . .]
There are a group of writers Antunes is frequently compared to: Celine, Dos Passos, and most obvious (to me), Faulkner. But he’s all of these writers and then something else. He’s Faulkner secure in his humor. A jangly, frenetic Faulkner. A Celine who cares even more about people. And it is care that’s at the center of this novel. It is Antunes’s questioning of psychiatric practices that drives the “plot” and hallucinatory descriptions.
This burning, questioning hatred of psychiatry fuels this book, but is also one of the reasons that, unfortunately, this novel is second-tier Antunes. The fire is too consuming, too all-encompassing, and it’s as if the section quote above is the only time that Antunes took a breath. (That and the bits addressed to the narrator’s daughter Joanna.) This is a worthwhile book—it’s intense, it’s captivating, and very cinematic—but if you’ve never read Antunes, I’d recommend starting with Act of the Damned and circling around to this later.
Knowledge of Hell
by Antonio Lobo Antunes
298 pages, $13.95
Dalkey Archive Press
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