1 April 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.

Kite by Dominique Eddé, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and published by Seagull Books

This recommendation Rick Simonson, legendary bookseller at the “Elliott Bay Book Company.”:http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

Translator Ros Schwartz and Seagull Books have given English-language readers a brilliant, searing look at the layers of a very contemporary relationship in this translation of Dominque Eddé’s Kite. Going back and forth in time and in place—from Beirut to Paris, to Cairo and London—this book is both a powerful exploration of love and of the shifts in intellectual culture at a tumultuous time in the Arab and western worlds. Ros Schwartz deftly traces the shifts and changes in setting and narrative through Edde’s wonderfully dense and shifting prose.

But a novel from the Calcutta-based Seagull Books might still seem like a darkhorse in this race and this is only the second time a book of theirs has appeared on the BTBA long list, though they’ve been publishing translations for thirty years and they rank with New Directions and Dalkey Archive in the numbers of new translations they publish every year. They’re also gaining a lot of traction with indie booksellers—I’ve seen new staff recommendations for their books appear here at Elliott Bay, and all down the west coast at City Lights, Green Apple and Skylight Books. And with good reason: Kite contains a richly rewarding depiction of a character—one who reads, who writes!—going blind that is, by itself, worth the price of the book.

*

Chad here. To add a special bit of something to Rick’s write-up, here’s a really fun bit of the interview Seagull Books founder Naveen Kishore gave in Shelf Awareness:

Shelf Awareness: What do you love about books in translation?

Naveen Kishore: The “edginess” of literature different from mine. The “getting-under-the-skin” quality. The sense of dislocation and being “torn asunder.” And the intuitive recognition of humor across cultures!

SA: What do you think is the future of the printed book?

NK: Healthy. More beautifully crafted than ever before. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

12 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lili Sarayrah on Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel, which is translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and available from ANTIBOOKCLUB.

Lili was in my publishing class last semester, studies at the Eastman School, and is working towards her certificate in literary translation.

This is the first ANTIBOOKCLUB book that we’ve reviewed, but they seem really interesting, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to cover them more in the not-too-distant future.

Here’s the opening of Lili’s review:

“Neighbor, what can I say? All the fake moans of this world rail against the toil of ephemeral things. My moans, however, rail against the insanity of their toil in a time that we ignore and that ignores us, a time that is paralyzed, hand and foot, and that consumes only the fruit of pride. While we live out our days, time laughs from inside a dance circle. Donʼt be afraid. Who knows? Perhaps it will transport us to another region of this existence. There we may confront time with just the same number of moans, which we will transmute to laughs until they die away. Why donʼt you say something?”

Thus ends the two-page-long first chapter of The Diesel, the shortest and most experimental Arabic text that I have ever read. It was published in Beirut in 1994 but didnʼt make it into English until 2012. Because of its extremely sensitive subject matter it was dubbed “the shock novel” by the Arab news station Al-Jazeera, and even though itʼs been nearly twenty years since it was published, The Diesel is still highly relevant to the state of Middle Eastern affairs today. The author, Al-Suwaidi, was born in the United Arab Emirates in 1966, and this first and only novella was written in between two poetry collections (the style of The Diesel is itself both poetic and disjointed). His words are compact and carefully chosen, but at the same time follow the protagonistʼs stream of consciousness. The author explains that his style “is based on the oral culture found in the region. Therefore we cannot say that this literature is essentially a new literature; we say instead that the novel constituted a revolution in popular storytelling.”

Our protagonist is a young boy who remains unnamed until he comes of age and develops his identity as a wildly famous transgender entertainer known as “the Diesel.” See? Controversial. The setting is a small traditional Arab village by the sea which is torn between the old way and the pull of the new generation as led by the Diesel himself. The plot is subtle and woven into so many layers of description that it takes a while to find it.

Click here to read the entire book.

12 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Neighbor, what can I say? All the fake moans of this world rail against the toil of ephemeral things. My moans, however, rail against the insanity of their toil in a time that we ignore and that ignores us, a time that is paralyzed, hand and foot, and that consumes only the fruit of pride. While we live out our days, time laughs from inside a dance circle. Donʼt be afraid. Who knows? Perhaps it will transport us to another region of this existence. There we may confront time with just the same number of moans, which we will transmute to laughs until they die away. Why donʼt you say something?”

Thus ends the two-page-long first chapter of The Diesel, the shortest and most experimental Arabic text that I have ever read. It was published in Beirut in 1994 but didnʼt make it into English until 2012. Because of its extremely sensitive subject matter it was dubbed “the shock novel” by the Arab news station Al-Jazeera, and even though itʼs been nearly twenty years since it was published, The Diesel is still highly relevant to the state of Middle Eastern affairs today. The author, Al-Suwaidi, was born in the United Arab Emirates in 1966, and this first and only novella was written in between two poetry collections (the style of The Diesel is itself both poetic and disjointed). His words are compact and carefully chosen, but at the same time follow the protagonistʼs stream of consciousness. The author explains that his style “is based on the oral culture found in the region. Therefore we cannot say that this literature is essentially a new literature; we say instead that the novel constituted a revolution in popular storytelling.”

Our protagonist is a young boy who remains unnamed until he comes of age and develops his identity as a wildly famous transgender entertainer known as “the Diesel.” See? Controversial. The setting is a small traditional Arab village by the sea which is torn between the old way and the pull of the new generation as led by the Diesel himself. The plot is subtle and woven into so many layers of description that it takes a while to find it. The descriptions themselves are challenging to follow:

A man standing on the shipʼs deck seized a white abaya, which he wrapped around his head, and then kneeled silently, facing us. Meanwhile, all the sailors had dropped their drawers and lined up beside that man, who seized a long stick then and tapped the meaty appendages of their bodies. These were all dead, but even so strange rays emanated from them. I wasnʼt really freaked out, because these rays were a reflection of the seaʼs light on their bodies.

This writing is so abstract that the only name that comes to mind is Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan poet and author whose first language is Arabic but whose works are written entirely in French. Ben Jellounʼs style is similarly stream of consciousness and focuses on gender issues as well (his protagonists include a baby girl raised as a boy) but his plots are still much more structured.

Aside from the fact that the Diesel is a strong transgender character, gender roles is a persistent issue throughout the text. Women are championed by the Dieselʼs sister, who mates with the sea and then names each of her children so that their “lineage is reckoned by female descent, not male.” Other sensitive issues include not only the fact that the Diesel is repeatedly raped by a male wayfarer in a mosque, but that his father endorses it. Later he is also ordered to sleep with a 70 year old woman. Also, a woman rapes her son-in-law using a stick in her mouth after her daughter accuses him of attempting sodomy. These scenes are actually not gruesome at all, but have such a matter-of-fact tone to them that itʼs easy to see why it was banned in the United Arab Emirates for ten years after it was published.

William Hutchins is the translator, and his introduction says that “Al-Suwaidi has portrayed a world heading for collision, a world that many in the Gulf region have worked hard to conceal.” Hutchins has produced an excellent translation through working with the author, completing extensive research of Arabic texts with similar themes, and utilizing his own extensive experience in translation and knowledge of the language. Since Al-Suwaidiʼs writing is so strange, Hutchins must have been forced to play a more pivotal role in the process rather than simply acting as a functional translator. I find the result to be quite successful.

By the end of the work, I realized that the Dieselʼs music had become so popular that the people used him as a symbol to rebel against the ruling powers. This prediction of revolution makes the work even more timely, and certainly more controversial in the Middle East. I would avoid the highly explanatory introduction until youʼve finished it so that the style of the writing may surprise you over and over again. The deliberately disjointed wording is, I think, supposed to reflect an identity crisis that the Arabs have experienced for some time now and that is still playing out as I write. This novella undoubtedly deserves attention for its highly unique execution and relevant subject material, and I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone.

28 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction—also known as the Arabic Booker—was announced yesterday as a sort of kick-off for this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

This is the second time Jaber has been shortlisted for the prize, which, when you think about the fact that this is only the fifth iteration of the award, is pretty remarkable.

Here’s a bit about the book and Jaber himself:

After the 1860 Civil War in Mount Lebanon, a number of fighters from the religious Druze community are forced into exile, travelling by sea to the fortress of Belgrade on the boundary of the Ottoman Empire. In exchange for the freedom of a fellow fighter, they take with them a Christian man from Beirut called Hanna Yacoub; an unfortunate egg seller who happens to be sitting at the port. The Druze of Belgrade follows their adventures in the Balkans, as they struggle to stay alive.

Lebanese novelist and journalist Rabee Jaber was born in Beirut in 1972. He has been editor of Afaq, the weekly cultural supplement of Al-Hayat newspaper, since 2001. His first novel, Master of Darkness, won the Critics’ Choice Prize in 1992. He has since written 16 novels, including Black Tea, The Last House, Yousif Al-Inglizi, The Journey of the Granadan (published in German in 2005), Berytus: A City Beneath the Earth (published in French by Gallimard in 2009) and America, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010.

And from the press release:

As well as winning 50,000 US Dollars, Rabee Jaber is guaranteed an English translation of his novel, as well as increased book sales and international recognition. In the past five years, all winners of the Prize have secured English publishing deals for their novels, with three former winners—Youssef Ziedan, Abdo Khal and Mohammed Achaari—to be published in English in 2012.

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