16 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a special post from Katherine Rucker, a MALTS student here at the University of Rochester who is doing an independent study with me on Latin American literature. As you’ll see below, she’s planning on doing sample translations—and reader’s reports—from a bunch of underrepresented Spanish language literatures. Problem is, she’s having a tough time finding interesting, contemporary, untranslated books from some of these places.

Once I realized that I’d never really translated anything by an author who wasn’t from Spain or Argentina, I decided to do a sort of choose your own adventure Spanish class this semester. It’s basically an independent study where I’ll only read books from Spanish-speaking countries that are less represented in translation. But first I’ll have to choose some books. Beyond the usual challenge of finding books that are both a) good and b) have translation rights available, I found that it’s actually damn near impossible to find any kind of book from countries like Nicaragua. Or Costa Rica. Much less Panama.

Granted, part of this might have to do with the actual number of books coming out of those countries. (At one point in my Internet-crawling I realized that what I was looking at wasn’t a “Best Books of 2013” list, but actually a list of “All the Books Published in This Country Last Year”.) The more I looked, the more I became convinced that this has a lot to do with the framework of publishing throughout most of Latin America–namely the fact that most of the publishers are incredibly out-of-touch with the modern methods of reaching a wider audience . . . by which I mean the Internet.

As an example, I found a book I wanted to read from Uruguay. It was on one of the only publisher’s websites I stumbled on that wasn’t hard to look at and actually seemed functional. They even had a decent catalog. Great. I figured I could just order the book online—but every search I did brought me back to the same publisher’s website . . . who wanted me to either send them a message or give them a phone call saying which books I wanted and then come pick them up from their office. Shipping was extra, and they only shipped within Uruguay.

I guess what I might be experiencing here is something that other translators have confronted before: even if I’m actively seeking out books from a particular countries, I’m going to have a hard time finding them. And if I’m not actively looking for them, I’m never, ever going to find them—and books that are invisible to translators stay invisible to everyone else, too.

So unless someone wants to fly me to Uruguay for Spring Break, I’ll keep sorting through bad publishing websites, trying to find something promising. But since I know you all wouldn’t be reading Three Percent if you didn’t care about promoting translation, I’ll go ahead and say that I’d love to hear from you. If you’re the biggest fan of Bolivia’s best-kept secret, if you’re a translator or publisher with a giant library, or even if you just happen to be a bit better at googling than I am, I’d love it if you helped me find some books from these under-translated countries. I’m eager to see what we’ll find.

—Katherine Rucker (krucker [at] z.rochester.edu)

27 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Pierce Alquist on Manuela Fingueret’s Daughter of Silence, which is translated from the Spanish by Darrell B. Lockhart and is available from Texas Tech University Press.

This is Pierce’s first review for threepercent. Pierce is a student at the University of Rochester majoring in English Literature, minoring in Journalism and Anthropology. She has interned at various publishing companies, with publications ranging from magazines to academic works, and now translated literature. After studying abroad this past semester at Oxford she is happy to return to her native Rochester.

Here is part of her review:

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980’s neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to “The Americas” series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina’s political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, “Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother’s path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex:

Click here to read the entire review.

27 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980’s neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to “The Americas” series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina’s political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, “Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother’s path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex:

A space for the abused and desperate. Peronism was the ideal place in which to orient those feelings. The Peronism of passion, of mysticism, of marginalization, of prominence. Jew and Peronist. Peronist and Jew. Woman, Jew, and Peronist. A triple provocation. The stories of concentration camps that I tried to decipher between books and whispers among family members became an undeniable obsession. All the barriers that Tinkeleh put in place with her silence made my journey inevitable. (78)

Fingueret’s prose captures Rita’s desperate, winding thoughts as she navigates her imprisonment and clings to her memories to maintain her sanity. In her rapidly declining state, however, she finds solace in piecing together her mother’s unspoken memories of the Holocaust. Whether this imagined world is healthy or another tax on her already damaged mental state is left undiscussed, but Rita uses these imagined memories to connect to her mother and other resilient women, etching their names on her cell walls for inspiration.

Rita’s story is told through fragments, becoming increasingly disorienting as her abuse escalates. In any lesser author’s hands, this disorientation would merely result in a reader’s confusion but Fingueret instead artfully references Rita’s fragile mental state, with the spaces between the text, the silence, telling more of Rita’s struggle than her words alone. Rita herself is insightfully portrayed, surrounded by the impassioned idealism of the Peronists around her, and struggling to connect with a distant, silent mother, she discovers in prison the deeper similarities between herself, Tinkeleh, and generations of other women, forced into the bind of silence and obedience but driven to survive.

The novel ends uncertainly, as Rita is transferred from her prison, defiantly looking at the blank expanse of her future:

I stretch my body across the void. I see a lot, I hear too much, I file and file, thousands of voices, ages, hair colors, professions, addresses: Auschwitz in Buenos Aires. These women console me. They know as well as I do where this train is headed. Did I get off at the wrong station? I have no regrets. (147)

Despite its difficult subject matter, the book concludes with some remnants of hope, as Rita’s resilience stands as a testament to the strength and will to survive of generations of women. The deep unsettling connections allow Fingueret to create a wholly new Argentinean novel, exploring the relationship between Judaism and Latin America, women and their tradition of silence, and ultimately calling for a clearer understanding of the nature of history.

20 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In celebration of it 25th anniversary, FIL Guadalajara (aka the Guadalajara Book Fair) has announced the 25 Best Kept Secrets in Latin America program:

25 writers. Narrators. All invited to Guadalajara to be part of The 25 Best Kept Secrets in Latin America. With this project, the Guadalajara International Book Fair seeks to tear down the borders separating Latin American literature and trace a route for the literature created throughout the continent, and in the year when it celebrates its first quarter of a century as the major publishing gathering in Ibero-America. This event will allow us to have in Guadalajara 25 voices and languages that will offer visitors the same number of ways to decipher, today, Latin America. [. . .]

The group is formed by narrators with more than one published book and whose works are very rarely known outside their countries The authors were chosen through a process that involved reading dozens of books and an extensive consultation process with other writers, publishers, booksellers, journalists and literary critics from Latin America. A committee of readers made the final selection, giving form to this group of authors who have taken writing as a vital option, representing literary views from 15 different Latin American countries.

The meeting of The 25 Best Kept Secrets will be organized around five discussion tables where groups of five authors will talk about their interests and the public will be able to know what is most representative of them. This will take place from Sunday, November 27 through Thursday, December 1 from 19:00 to 21:00. Also, these writers will have meetings with agents and publishers, and they will join young people as part of the Echoes of FIL program.

As if the tequila wasn’t reason enough to attend . . . But seriously, FIL Guadalajara is an absolutely amazing fair. It’s a great place to learn about authors in a wonderful setting that’s both beautiful and loaded with readers who are genuinely thrilled to meet and listen to famous authors. It’s pretty stunning, and everyone involved in publishing and Spanish-language translation has to go at some point in time.

Anyway, here’s the list of the “25 Best Kept Secrets”:

Juan Alvarez (Colombia)
Luis Alberto Bravo (Ecuador)
Andres Burgos (Colombia)
Fabian Casas (Argentina)
Miguel Antonio Chavez (Ecuador)
Carlos Cortes (Costa Rica)
Francisco Diaz Klaassen (Chile)
Jacinta Escudos (El Salvador)
Nona Fernandez (Chile)
Fernanda Garcia Lao (Argentina)
Ulises Juarez Polanco (Nicaragua)
Roberto Martinez Bachrich (Venezuela)
Emiliano Monge (Mexico)
Javier Mosquera Saravia (Guatemala)
Diego Munoz Valenzuela (Chile)
Enrique Planas (Peru)
Maria Eugenia Ramos (Honduras)
Luis Miguel Rivas (Colombia)
Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia)
Hernan Ronsino (Argentina)
Pablo Soler Frost (Mexico)
Daniela Tarazona (Mexico)
Dani Umpi (Uruguay)
Eduardo Varas (Ecuador)
Carlos Oriel Wynter Melo (Panama)

Click here for more info on all of these writers, including bios, excerpts, and lists of their activities at the fair.

10 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m sort of on vacation this week (and will literally be out of town on Thursday and Friday), so instead of writing a lot of new posts, I’m instead going to run a bunch of reviews that I’ve been storing up. First in the queue is David Krinick’s piece on Mario Benedetti’s The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories, which was translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales and will be out from Host Publications next week.

As David mentions, Benedetti is a big name in Latin American literature, but not all that well known among English-readers. That’s no fault of Morales’s—he’s been pushing to get Benedetti’s works published for quite some time now. Harry’s a great translator, and it’s great to see at least one of the books he was championing available to the masses.

David’s interning here this summer, packing catalogs, reading submissions, and setting up sales calls with bookstores. (Among other fun intern activities.)

Here’s the opening of his review:

Mario Benedetti is a name seldom recognized in the United States, but lasting memory and love of the writer’s prolific career maintains his popularity in Latin America. His multifaceted talent over language produced a dizzying eighty published books, writing as a poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist and political activist. Born in Uruguay in 1920 and coming of age in Montevideo, the nations largest city and capitol, he lived during a period of economic success and social liberty that his neighboring country’s failed to maintain. This milieu left its mark on his writing, manifesting a distinctly urban voice that captures the often isolated existences that modern cities have produced. He explored characters and environments of social and political repression that stemmed from the plights of Uruguay’s neighboring countries and later its own military dictatorship which forced him into exile in 1973. Whether his narrations embody embittered lovers, pets, or fragmented psyches eager for attention, Benedetti’s origins as a poet penetrates his short stories with lucid descriptions that illuminate his often bleak landscapes. From “Forgotten Memories”:

“Fernando is sweet and his weight doesn’t weigh on me his bones fit into my sockets and I clearly see the juicy sadness of being happy not like with Eduardo of course because this heavenly bliss is also part of my grief this apex also part of my ruin but the body is pragmatic and saves us saves me through pleasure like this one that now penetrates me saves us though the tongues that communicate and console our loneliness purifies us in the lament that is an appeal and is a response and thus I come and go and you come and go Fernando in my ego your home your birthplace your bed tell me again Lucía because with your clamor you give me my identity you give me my body give me my nature you give me you give me oh how much you’ve giving me Fernando Eduardo Fernando Eduardo Fernando Fernando Fernando I exist again.”

Click here to read the full review, and click here to visit our complete review section.

10 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Mario Benedetti is a name seldom recognized in the United States, but lasting memory and love of the writer’s prolific career maintains his popularity in Latin America. His multifaceted talent over language produced a dizzying eighty published books, writing as a poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, journalist and political activist. Born in Uruguay in 1920 and coming of age in Montevideo, the nations largest city and capitol, he lived during a period of economic success and social liberty that his neighboring country’s failed to maintain. This milieu left its mark on his writing, manifesting a distinctly urban voice that captures the often isolated existences that modern cities have produced. He explored characters and environments of social and political repression that stemmed from the plights of Uruguay’s neighboring countries and later its own military dictatorship which forced him into exile in 1973. Whether his narrations embody embittered lovers, pets, or fragmented psyches eager for attention, Benedetti’s origins as a poet penetrates his short stories with lucid descriptions that illuminate his often bleak landscapes. From “Forgotten Memories”:

Fernando is sweet and his weight doesn’t weigh on me his bones fit into my sockets and I clearly see the juicy sadness of being happy not like with Eduardo of course because this heavenly bliss is also part of my grief this apex also part of my ruin but the body is pragmatic and saves us saves me through pleasure like this one that now penetrates me saves us though the tongues that communicate and console our loneliness purifies us in the lament that is an appeal and is a response and thus I come and go and you come and go Fernando in my ego your home your birthplace your bed tell me again Lucía because with your clamor you give me my identity you give me my body give me my nature you give me you give me oh how much you’ve giving me Fernando Eduardo Fernando Eduardo Fernando Fernando Fernando I exist again.

The Rest Is Jungle and Other Stories (recently published by the admirable Host Publications) offers a rare survey of the author’s short stories that spans over fifty decades of work. The stories collected act as vignettes that offer the reader brief perspectives of the many unremarkable lives of many of Uruguay’s urban citizens. In works such as “The Iriarte Family” Benedetti shows the life of a secretary’s febrile romanticizing of a female’s voice and the subsequent disintegration of his real life relationship. His character’s are repeatedly confronted with outcomes that contradict what they thought they originally desired.

Later stories reflect the author’s exile, evoking voices from the previous generation’s émigré writers such as Nabokov and Bunin. In “Completely Absent-Minded” an exiled politician’s dazed wayfaring across Europe brings him unexpectedly back to his home country, where he is quickly arrested. Benedetti’s voice shifts from the expository urban observer to a ruthless dissector of individual’s morals that passively accept their government’s yoke. Stories such as “Listening to Mozart,” “Nineteen” and “Answering Machine” expose cases of loyalty motivated by fear and self-preservation. From “Listening to Mozart”:

Sometimes, you too interrogate without conviction, and if you use electric shock, that’s precisely the reason why; because you don’t have any confidence in your own line of reasoning, because you know that no one is suddenly going to turn into a traitor just because you evoke the fatherland or curse at them.

Benedetti’s fearless writing chronicles a dark period in Latin American history, one where loved ones would disappear over night, never to be seen again. This collection, however, also resonates with the author’s desire to speak of love and our need for one another despite the estranged natures that society and politics cultivates in us. He explores the lines between public and private lives, illuminating our curious passions with a sense of irony, humor and gravity. The Rest Is Jungle affords a great introduction into the provocative career of one of Latin America’s most beloved authors.

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on the reissue of Suzanne Jill Levine’s classic The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.

This book has had a huge impact on translators ever since it was first published, and there was even a huge celebration of Jill at the last ALTA conference to honor the republication of her book.

I totally love Jill and am a huge fan of all of her translations, especially the Puig books and Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. And I also love what she’s done for Penguin Classics with the special five-volume Borges set. (Which we will review at some point—I promise.) Additionally, the Reading the World podcast Erica Mena and I did with her was one of the best to date. (You can subscribe to the RTW Podcast via iTunes, or listen to it at the link above.)

Jessica has become one of our regular reviewers. As a bit of background info, she 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 and W. W. Norton & Company. Jessica currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

“Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.”

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

Click here to read the full piece.

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

The author, Suzanne Jill Levine, is a Spanish professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, as well as a renowned translator of Latin American fiction’s powerhouses such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig. In addition to The Subversive Scribe and several scholarly publications, she’s also published a biography: Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions.

When lovingly outlining just how she transferred her passion for the Spanish language into a lifelong odyssey as a translator, specifically of Latin American (male) authors, she says:

Scientists could come up with new inventions; astronauts could set foot on new planets; the only frontier adventure available to the translator seemed to be the crossing of language and cultural barriers, stepping through the Looking Glass to see what a presumably untranslatable Spanish text would look like on the other side, in English. I was challenged thus (and perhaps doomed to the fate of Borges’s pathetic Pierre Menard or Flaubert’s bumbling Bouvard and Pecuchet) by these Latin American fictions.

To most, the word “subversive” has political connotations, and draws readers a mental image along the lines of Solzhenitsyn toiling away in the gulag. Yet in the case of Levine’s narrative, she poetically states that the act of translation is in itself a subversive act:

A translation will never be the text it imitates, which was written in another language, but it can be a version lying dormant and, like Frankenstein (to use an Infantesque metaphor), animated by a mad translator, a text illuminated and motivated by the original, realized in its next life, in translation.

Levine’s illuminating and crisp prose is at its height when describing her philosophical approaches to translation, and when sharing her personal experiences with Latin America’s literary crème de la crème. However, the narrative flow becomes a bit bogged down when the author launches into the more specific nuances of Spanish grammar and linguistics. Organized in four parts, The Subversive Scribe outlines the linguistic trials and tribulations of titles, names, and even specific cultural sexual innuendos for a greater part of the book than I personally would have preferred. Because I’m not fluent in a second language and haven’t translated literature myself (and lack much experience with Latin American literature), much of these sections that were heavy on literary criticism and linguistics were lost on me. The Subversive Scribe sings out when Levine focuses more on her personal relationship with authors and her experiences translating, but merely hums when she delves deep into the grammatical grit. That said, I get the sense that The Subversive Scribe would be perfect for someone who is fluent in a second language, and possesses their own firsthand experience translating literature.

Ultimately, The Subversive Scribe “is meant to jolt the reader out of a comfortable (or uncomfortable) view of translation as secondary, as faint shadows of primary, vivid but lost, originals . . . to dramatize this I have purposely focused on writers and writing that speak explicitly of the original’s self-betrayal . . .Readers also need to understand how Latin American writing is transmitted to them, and how differences and similarities between cultures and languages affect what is finally transmitted. Knowing the other and how we receive or hear the other is a fundamental step toward knowing ourselves.” Indeed it is.

21 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece on Roberto Bolaño’s first novel to come out in 2010: Monsieur Pain, translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions.

This review is by Dan Vitale, a writer and editor who has written a number of pieces for Three Percent. And he definitely makes this sound like a strange, intriguing Bolaño novel:

According to Roberto Bolaño’s introductory note, the original title of Monsieur Pain was The Elephant Path—a term for those well-worn shortcuts that pedestrians tread, say, across a grassy area between two paved sidewalks, examples of the human tendency to blaze our own trails heedless of the city planners’ best calculations of where we ought to go.

This short, intriguing book, which Bolaño says in his note he had written in 1981 or 1982, appears to be one of his earliest attempts at a novel. In his introductory note he also hints that the genesis of the book came from the memoirs of the wife of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.

The plot is rudimentary. In Paris, in the spring of 1938, our narrator Pierre Pain, a dabbler in acupuncture and mesmerism, is asked by his friend Madame Reynaud to attend at the hospital bedside of her friend Madame Vallejo’s husband. It is Madame Reynaud’s hope that, using the occult sciences, Pain may cure the patient’s chronic hiccups, a case that has confounded his doctors.

The bit about the “epilogue for voices” is particular interesting, and ties into some of the things I mentioned in the BTBA write-up about The Skating Rink . . . Anyway, click here for the full review.

21 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

According to Roberto Bolaño’s introductory note, the original title of Monsieur Pain was The Elephant Path—a term for those well-worn shortcuts that pedestrians tread, say, across a grassy area between two paved sidewalks, examples of the human tendency to blaze our own trails heedless of the city planners’ best calculations of where we ought to go.

This short, intriguing book, which Bolaño says in his note he had written in 1981 or 1982, appears to be one of his earliest attempts at a novel. In his introductory note he also hints that the genesis of the book came from the memoirs of the wife of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.

The plot is rudimentary. In Paris, in the spring of 1938, our narrator Pierre Pain, a dabbler in acupuncture and mesmerism, is asked by his friend Madame Reynaud to attend at the hospital bedside of her friend Madame Vallejo’s husband. It is Madame Reynaud’s hope that, using the occult sciences, Pain may cure the patient’s chronic hiccups, a case that has confounded his doctors.

Monsieur Pain makes three attempts to see Vallejo. During the first, he is dismissed in favor of a renowned specialist who has just shown up and whose time is apparently much more valuable than Pain’s. Not long afterward, he is offered a bribe of two thousand francs by two mysterious Spaniards not to treat Vallejo; he takes the bribe but is later convinced by Madame Reynaud to return to the hospital.

During his second attempt, he succeeds at appraising the patient’s condition:

I went straight to Vallejo’s side. He turned over and opened his lips but was unable to articulate a word. Madame Reynaud raised one hand to her mouth, as if to stifle a cry. The silence in the room seemed to be full of holes.

I held my hand a foot above the head of the bed and prepared myself to wait. The patient’s angular face lay before me, exposed, displaying the strange disconsolate dignity shared by all those who have been confined in hospital for some time. The rest is vague: locks of black hair, the collar of the pajama top loose around his neck, healthy skin, no sign of sweat. His hiccups were the only sound in that quiet room. I know I could never describe Vallejo’s face, at least not as I saw it then, the only time we ever met; but the hiccups, the nature of the hiccups, which swallowed everything as soon as you listened carefully, that is, as soon as you really listened to them, confounded all description, and yet was accessible to everyone, like a sonic ectoplasm or a surrealist found object.

On his last attempt, during which he plans to treat Vallejo, he is blocked by an officious nurse and ordered from the premises. Plagued by melancholy and what may or may not be an overactive imagination, Pain begins to think there is a conspiracy afoot to assassinate Vallejo.

Bolaño uses this plot as a scaffold on which to hang several strange set pieces, including Pain’s overnight stay in a gloomy, forbidding warehouse (where he hears a voice imitating Vallejo’s hiccups) and his long conversation with a former acquaintance who has recently returned from the Spanish Civil War, where he is an intelligence officer working on the side of the fascists. The conversation takes place in a cinema during the showing of an experimental film that seems to anticipate the work of Resnais or Godard by several decades; in a bizarre tour de force of feverish narrative dislocation, Bolaño sets off the conversation with numerous detailed descriptions of the action on screen.

The significance of the novel’s events is left mostly obscure, but the pleasures of Monsieur Pain lie not so much in the storyline but rather in Bolaño’s gleeful but deadpan bouillabaisse of French surrealism, expressionism, and Kafkaesque unease. The hospital in particular could have come straight out of a German Expressionist film, with its nightmarish architecture and its hostile employees:

Then we followed Madame Vallejo down grey and white corridors, with a metallic, phosphorescent sheen, blemished here and there by unexpected black rectangles.

“It’s like a modern art gallery,” I heard Madame Reynaud murmur.

“The corridors are circular, in fact,” I said. “If they were longer, we could reach the top story without ever having noticed the climb.”

. . . I also noticed that the lighting in the corridors, contrived in a cunning but mysterious manner, since the illumination extended uniformly even into corners where the newcomer could see no trace of wiring or globes, was however varying in intensity; almost imperceptibly, at regular intervals, it dimmed.

Suddenly we came across a man in a white coat, the first we had seen in the course of our exploration, standing stock still in the middle of the corridor, and apparently plunged in deep cogitations. As we approached, he raised his eyes, sizing us up with his lips curved in a mocking grin, and crossed his arms. He gave an impression of coldness, or at least that is what I thought at the time. At any rate, it was evident from his expression that our sudden appearance had displeased him. Madame Vallejo slowed her pace noticeably, as if to delay the inevitable encounter with that man. Clearly they knew one another and she was afraid of him. But why?

We were formally introduced:

“Doctor Lejard, my husband’s GP.”

That we never find out exactly why Vallejo’s doctor is someone to be afraid of, yet continue to feel the unpleasant aftereffects of his glare, is typical of the novel’s disconcerting effect on the reader.

Monsieur Pain ends with a curious “epilogue for voices,” subtitled “The Elephant Track,” in which we get glimpses of a number of the book’s major and minor characters in the future, either through an omniscient authorial voice or another person’s firsthand testimony. I’m not sure how Bolaño intended the reference to an elephant path to fit the novel as a whole, but Monsieur Pain is definitely a book that blazes its own trail. It was also an early step on Bolaño’s own dazzling, idiosyncratic, career-long elephant path through the literature of Europe and the Americas: from France to Mexico to his native Chile, from Kafka to Borges, from the detective story (The Skating Rink) to the fictional encyclopedia (Nazi Literature in the Americas) to the road novel (The Savage Detectives) to the bildungsroman (part 5 of 2666). Despite the usually confining expectations of genre, style, influence, or national culture, Roberto Bolaño always went his own way.

21 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Chile, New Directions)

Well, 2009 wasn’t nearly the “Year of Bolaño” that 2008 was . . . Last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist included both 2666 and Nazi Literature in the Americas, which sparked various debates about whether Bolaño was overrated, whether his shorter prose was better than his overly ambitious, epically long novels, whether or not he actually needed the attention the award might bring, etc., etc.

In the end, 2666 was one of the three real finalists for the award (along with Senselessness and eventual winner Tranquility) and I think I spent more time explaining why it didn’t win than focusing on the awesomeness of Attila Bartis’s dark, creepy novel.

With three Bolaño books coming out in 2010, who knows what next year’s award might look like, but for now, we only have one Bolaño book to talk about: The Skating Rink. (Although I am going to make this a “Day of Bolaño” by also posting the review of Monsieur Pain that just arrived . . . ) The Skating Rink is an early novel of Bolaño’s, and one that put him on the literary map in part for his use of three narrators to tell the story and the unique way he constructs a detective novel that contains no actual detective . . .

In brief, this is a novel of three men living in the town of Z whose lives are intertwined: Remo Moran, a successful businessman; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department. And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.

There’s also a murder. And some shady political dealings. A skating rink. And a twisted love story.

But similar to Noa Weber, what’s most amazing about this novel are the voices. Each chapter is narrated by one of the three male protagonists, and these monologues read almost like confessions, or responses to some line of questioning—yet as pointed out above, there is no detective in the pages of this mystery. Nevertheless, right from the start, the reader knows something has gone down and that Enric Rosquelles is the main suspect:

Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. My life is orderly and even rather austere. I don’t smoke or drink much; I hardly go out at night. I’m known as a hard worker: if I have to, I can work a sixteen-hour day without flagging. I was awarded my psychology degree at the age of twenty-two, and it would be false modesty not to mention that I was one of the top students in my class. At the moment I’m studying law; in fact, I should have finished the degree already, but I decided to take things easy. I’m in no hurry. To tell you the truth I often think it was a mistake to enroll in law school. Why am I putting myself through this? It’s more and more of a drag as the years go by. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I never give up. Sometimes I’m slow and sometimes I’m quick—part tortoise, part Achilles—but I never give up. It has to be admitted, however, that it’s not easy to work and study at the same time, and as I was saying, my job is generally intense and demanding. Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.

Granted, The Skating Rink has nowhere near the scope and ambition of 2666 or The Savage Detectives. It’s not game-changing in terms of the possibilities of literature. It’s not even Bolaño’s best short work. Still, it’s a captivating early novel, one that sets forth some typical Bolaño themes in a fun, genre-tweaking way that highlights his novelistic skills. Definitely worth reading, and who knows, maybe the tightness of this book will impress the fiction judges more than the explosive looseness of 2666 . . .

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece that I wrote about Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink.

Bolano is a personal favorite, and I think this latest translation is very charming:

I’m as guilty as anyone for helping hype Roberto Bolaño’s two big books—“big” both in terms of reputation and size—that FSG released over the past two years. I loved both The Savage Detectives and 2666. I loved the heft, the ambition, the overreaching, and the risks he took.

But amid the Bolaño frenzy of the past couple years, his shorter books were somewhat overlooked. Which is a shame—in many ways, Bolaño is much better with these 150-200 page books than with his sprawling works.

Over the past six years, New Directions has done an amazing job of making all of these available to English readers. They brought out By Night in Chile to great reviews back in 2003. Then Distant Star came out shortly thereafter followed by Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Amulet, and a collection of his poetry entitled Romantic Dogs. The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews, who has done all of the works of fiction New Directions has published) releases this month, and there are even more Bolaño books scheduled for the next couple years. (According to Wyatt Mason’s review in the New York Times and wikipedia there are two novels and two story collections coming out next year, and three more books in 2011.)

When The Skating Rink came out in 1993, it really put Bolaño on the literary map. And for good reason. Playing with the detective novel genre, Bolaño uses three narrators to tell a story of love, corruption, and murder in the Spanish town of Z.

Love + Corruption + Murder—what more could you ask for in a book? The full review can be found here.

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m as guilty as anyone for helping hype Roberto Bolaño’s two big books—“big” both in terms of reputation and size—that FSG released over the past two years. I loved both The Savage Detectives and 2666. I loved the heft, the ambition, the overreaching, and the risks he took.

But amid the Bolaño frenzy of the past couple years, his shorter books were somewhat overlooked. Which is a shame—in many ways, Bolaño is much better with these 150-200 page books than with his sprawling works.

Over the past six years, New Directions has done an amazing job of making all of these available to English readers. They brought out By Night in Chile to great reviews back in 2003. Then Distant Star came out shortly thereafter followed by Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Amulet, and a collection of his poetry entitled Romantic Dogs. The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews, who has done all of the works of fiction New Directions has published) releases this month, and there are even more Bolaño books scheduled for the next couple years. (According to Wyatt Mason’s review in the New York Times and wikipedia there are two novels and two story collections coming out next year, and three more books in 2011.)

When The Skating Rink came out in 1993, it really put Bolaño on the literary map. And for good reason. Playing with the detective novel genre, Bolaño uses three narrators to tell a story of love, corruption, and murder in the Spanish town of Z.

The three principle players in this dance are: Remo Moran, a successful businessman in Z; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department.

And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.

All of these characters revolve around the skating rink that Enric builds for Nuria at the rundown Palacio Benvingut after she is kicked off of the national figure skating team. This is the place where Caridad leads Gaspar. It’s the same location where Remo finds a dead body.

Employing a somewhat Faulknerian technique, Bolaño lets all of the connections between these characters arise from the voices of the three male protagonists. Chapters alternate among the three, with each small bit reading almost like a confession, or a response to questioning about the murder. As other reviewers have remarked, although there’s no actual detective in the novel, it’s the mystery of who dies and who killed her that really drives the novel.

Novels in voices are a personal favorite, and it’s very interesting how authors create plot tensions and anticipation through the use of different narrators. In this case, Bolaño lets you know straight off that there’s something up. The opening section, narrated by Remo, refers to Jack the Ripper, makes an elusive reference to murder, and admits that yes, he knows Gaspar Heredia.

But Enric Rosquelles’s first speech is the most interesting in its allusions and defensive tone:

Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. [. . .] Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.

For a book that leaps ahead through three different perspectives, the pacing is pretty good. There are a few bits that drag a bit, but the payoff is well, well worth it. Granted, The Skating Rink isn’t loaded with big philosophical ideas about the twentieth century or artistic movements, but it operates according to its own rules, and does so in a way that’s incredibly enjoyable. Yet another example of why Bolaño is considered one of the finest world novelists of the past twenty years.

1 October 07 | lindsay_powell | Comments [2]

I recently came across this website and it is unlike anything I imagine exists in the US. The Buenos Aires government, along with other European and Latin American cities, has a specific department for the development and preservation of the arts. Part of their work is the creation of The Buenos Aires Audiovisual Archive of Writers, a center in both the physical space of the city and in cyberspace.

The site offers a ton of information about Argentinean writers and the literary scene in Buenos Aires. I suggest browsing the section of probably fifty writers’ top ten books as well as their Quicktime snippets about why they choose each book. The writers appear to be in their own personal libraries or living rooms as they discuss their favorite works.

For Spanish speakers these are interesting little videos but for English speakers, click the British flag in the corner of the home page for an English translation of the entire website. While they don’t dub the video clips into English or add subtitles, the rest of the website has a lot of useful information about writers in Latin America.

....
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