“Welcome on this glorious summer evening to another match in the 2014 World Cup of Literature! We’re here in beautiful Brazil, where Bosnia and Herzegovina faces off against Iran. I’m Chaz Flippo, here with the lovely Cindy Mignon on point to call the match for readers tonight.” “That’s right Chaz, we’ll be taking you through the pregame here momentarily as both countries get ready to square off with their strongest recent books: Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone for Bosnia and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel for Iran.” “The books are in the tunnel now, getting their covers’ straight, stretching those sentences and phrases and prepping for any and all narrative turns.” “Chaz, what would you say is the goal for each team in this matchup today?” “Well, to put it bluntly, Cindy: goals! Ha ha!” “Ha ha! Indeed, Chaz, and when you get one strong chapter to the back of the net it only takes another to really help conclude the whole thing.” “That’s right Cindy, the key will be control, pacing, and, if we’re lucky, a little twist thrown in for good measure.” “I’ve heard that the Iranian book has a particularly nasty little turn set up for the start of the match, with the Colonel’s wife getting executed by his own—” “Tut tut, Cindy! We don’t want to get ahead of our readers here. That would be like jumping to the Bosnian war section of How the Soldier, where Aleksandar deliberately changes the name of—” “Chaz, please! Look at us here, giving all the spoilers away.” “We’ll be more careful, dear readers! It’s a wonderful day for a match, the field glowing green under the hot jungle sun, beating down on your head like you just spent all night in the jungle talking to god!” “That’s, uhmm, that’s right, Chaz!“And here come the books now! The Colonel is hand in hand with the youth escorts.” “My are those some spritely future football players accompanying The Colonel.” “Yes yes, to be sure, but I have to admit to you, Cindy, the Iranian looks a little old for this match—just a little too wrinkled walking out there hand in hand with the children.” “There was some talk in the WCoL’s Governing Powers about the The Colonel’s age, but apparently it slipped right through. One wonders, with these things, how much of this might have to do with a briefcase or two.” “Tut tut, my girl, let’s not jump to any conclusions. Conclusions make the head pound, and, to be frank, I had quite a long night last night. You see, I had something of and adven—” “Not now, Chaz, not right during coverage.” “Oh and how marvelous! Here comes How the Soldier, walking tall and proud as ever. You know, this Bosnian book really might have what it takes to make it deep into the later rounds. It has the playfulness, the rigor, the complexity to really mix things up here tonight and come out ahead.” “If it can manage to handle The Colonel’s dense, elliptical style, well, sure, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Iranians are lucky enough to be represented by a book that was banned in their own country, so you can imagine what a feat of writing it must be.” “It’s a dark book, to be sure, but one wonders, watching it warm up before the match, if it’s perhaps a little too relentless, a little too brooding. But really, last night was the most marvelous night of all my years.” “Don’t you think it can wait?” “Tut tut, Cindy! Always business first! Oh, and would you look at that! One of the Bosnian escorts is doing pirouettes right there on the pitch! How fun!” “He’s all hands and feet, isn’t he Chaz? All hands and feet, that one. My what a lovely cultural moment this all is. That’s really the only way you can put it, a lovely cultural moment.” “Cindy, I’ve been milling around the stadiums, and I’ve seen the beaches and the beautiful people and the architecture and all that’s peachy, but last night I saw something more.” “Yes, let’s just say peachy and end it there, Chaz.” “I’ve taken to spending lots of time outside the heavily guarded, fenced off areas of the cities, and Cindy, let me tell you about a friend I made last night named Mr. Huasca.” “Chaz I don’t think that’s very appropriate for our readers.” “No no, that’s alright, everything is alright now. It was all like the dream of the breath from a god playing a flute.” “. . .” “I awoke this morning with birds all a flutter in my head, deep in the jungle, ready for the game, and ready to tell my story.” “Well we’re just a few minutes away from kicking off the next exciting match in the World Cup of Literature, and—” “And, if you’d excuse me for one moment, I can tell you what it feels like to squirm around in football’s primordial soup.” “Chaz, please, not ag—“ “No no no, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s topical. You see, I was staying over at my grandparents house, the ones that grew up right around Kent—this was, say, forty years ago, in the vision of course—and, and this is all in my head, you see, because my grandma and papa are long since dead, but here I found myself, lying on my back under their kitchen table watching all of their feet stir by, their loafers and slippers speeding past, keeping to the rhythm of the music coming from the gramophone, the kind you hear in a dream, sleigh bells and clarinets and French horns—oh yes, the French horns!—filling up the space like a vapor, my grandparent’s making laps around the—” “Chaz, I really thi—” “kitchen shuttling plates from counter to counter, and I can hear my parents in the other room drinking cocktails with my auntie and uncle, prattling on about my marks—or lack thereof ha ha!—in voices that seem almost to well up from inside my own head and pop out and around a little hale from ear to ear and then slip right back inside, breaking apart into a million pieces, these voices, and out of nowhere—and this was really out of nowhere, you see, like out of some void right there at the room’s edge—comes a giant black dog, skulking low and sniffing—” “It’s really not appro—” “at every surface, pushing his giant maw under every shoe, every chair, the table cloth, the placemats, everything, coming closer and closer, the size of a pony, smelling of meat and sweat and garbage, and he’s coming closer and closer, pushing the chairs out the way now to put his giant nose right in front of me, right over my head, and then he’s opening his mouth, he’s baring his teeth, his tongue dangling loosely over my hair like the floppy flaps in a car wash, and I hear a rumbling coming from the pit of his stomach, and then a heaving, a heavy, hollow, heaving pushing right up out of from his belly and through his chest, and my hands are bound by my sides with some invisible force—I was a worm, in fact, my hands and feet were no longer separate dangles but all one body, one worm-body, so I’m totally helpless beneath this table, this music, these people, this dog, and just as I’m sure he’s going to vomit all over my head, what comes out of his mouth, but a giant football. And I knew right then and there just what I had to—” “CHAZ! Chaz, listen to me here. Are you okay? You look faint. Would you like me to get you a doctor?” “I ate it.” “Ate what? You really should drink some water and maybe get some sleep. You look as white as a—” “The vomit football.” “. . .” “In the vision, I wiggled up like a worm and ate it.” “Chaz, this is hardly the time.” “I used my tongue to scoop it up and once it was in my throat it just dissolved—” “We’re just seconds away from the start of this round’s match—” “and I felt a great calm.” “—between the Bosnians and the Iranians for the chance to take on Honduras in the semi—” “I was like a child again.” “—finals, the chance of a lifetime to play for country—” “Like a little boy hiding.” “—people—” “Like a little coward, ha ha!” “—and literature.” “There I was, a worm under a dog beneath a table inside a dream, munching on a football!” “And the match starts, with The Colonel taking possess—“ “Let me just get down here on the ground and replay the scene. Would you kindly hold my pants?” “Chaz, no!”
Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1 — Iran: 0
Hal Hlavinka recently moved from Chicago to New York to take over as the events coordinator at Powerhouse Arena. As a result, he sends out approximately 500 email announcements a day.
June started a few days ago, which means that my rambling monthly overview of forthcoming translations is overdue. It also means that World Cup 2014 is about to start, which means that for the next month my brain will be as filled with soccer tactics and outcomes as literary ideas . . .
But sticking with the now: For the past two weeks, I’ve been on editorial trips to Estonia and Latvia. So rather than write up a post about forthcoming translations and a separate one about all the interesting stuff I’ve learned about in the Baltics, I thought I would “skin two bears with one trap” (from what I understand, this is the Estonian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone,” but a bit larger and darker . . . ) and merge my monthly overview with a bunch of observations and comments.
Since Estonia’s HeadRead Literary Festival and the Estonian Literature Centre were the main impetus behind this trip—they arranged for my flight over and back, all the accommodations, tons of great meetings with authors and other literary figures, etc.—I want to take a paragraph and just give some random shout-outs.
First off, Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem are two of the best people you could hire as representatives for your country’s literature. Always professional, super smart, incredibly helpful . . . Estonian literature wouldn’t be where it is today without those two. (And don’t laugh—I can name a half-dozen books that would win a couple rounds in the World Cup of Literature . . . if only Estonia’s actual football team wasn’t such shit.)
Also, the two translators who joined us—Matthew Hyde and Adam Cullen—are bloody brilliant and another reason I think we’re going to have access to more Estonian lit over the next few years. Adam recently translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio for Dalkey Archive, and is currently working on a mammoth book by Mihkel Mutt that should be out in late 2015.
Adam deserves another special shout-out for hanging out so much. He’s a great guy, with fantastic stories, and I really appreciated all the time he took showing me around, explaining things, drinking maybe too much with me at the amazing NoKu . . .
Same goes for Kaisa Kaer, who is probably best well known as the Estonian translator of the Harry Potter books. (See this entry in the Estonian Wikipedia.) She was there for the late nights at NoKu, but also showed me the part of Tallinn where Stalker was filmed. (Which is especially surreal during this white night period when it gets light way, way too early in the morning.)
Finally: All the other publishers on the trip—Gesche from Pushkin Press, Philip Gwyn Jones from Scribe, Frédéric Martin from Tripode, Artur from Piper, and Job from Prometheus—were all fantastic. I could write paragraphs about all the great things about each editors and his/her respective press . . .
I’ll get into some actual Estonian literature below, but for now, I just wanted to thank everyone who made this possible. OK, onto the books and the random shit.
La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books)
This is the third Saer book that we’re bringing out—we already have two more signed on though, so don’t worry—and it may well be the best. It is “grande,” yet a perfect introduction to Saer’s world, with characters from other books making an appearance, all the normal Saer themes being explored, and a shitload of wine being sold and consumed. It also was his final novel and feels a bit like a summing up. Great summer beach read!
For it’s size, Tallinn surely is a grand city. (See what I did there? Sorry, but after hearing foreign, unintelligible—to me at least—languages for the past couple weeks, my brain is responding with terrible puns [the other day I got into an elevator made by “Schindler” which quickly became “Schindler’s Lift”] and cheesy segues.) The Old City is such an interesting collection of very old buildings that are pretty well preserved . . . If ever there’s a city that deserves to be referred to as looking like a “fairy tale,” this one is it.
And while we were there, it was bustling with activity—the aforementioned HeadRead festival with its dozens of authors, a mini-festival of jazz music (which played very loudly over the opening ceremony of the HeadRead), and Olde Towne Days (I assume the “e“s are all supposed to be there), which was mostly people dressing up in Olde-Timey garb and doing crazy shit at the Town Hall, like playing horns out the windows and yelling “VIVA! VIVA!”
Leg over Leg, Volume 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)
One of the funniest parts of the Tallinn trip had to be our meals at Pegasus. Pegasus is a huge, beautiful restaurant that’s part of the Estonian Writers’ Union building. It’s a really great place, and one that was always completely empty when our group arrived for lunch. Without fail, the waitress would come up to the table and explain that due to “how busy the kitchen was” they had a limited menu today, and instead of the twenty or so delicious-sounding things on their menu, we’d have to choose between two starters, two entrees, and one dessert, and we must order everything right away, up front. None of this made any sense, but it made for a fun guessing game . . . “Do you think we’ll be able to get the chicken soup today?” “Nope, just the raw salad and the cheese plate.” “OH, ESTONIA!!!!!!”
The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions)
This was my first experience with the “White Nights” that impact most of Northern Europe. (And places like Iceland, which this book has fuck-all to do with.) That, mixed with the jet lag I’ve started to suffer in my oldering age, is really messing me up. It’s just disorienting to have the sun “set” at 10:30-11:00 at night, after which it will be “dark” for approximately two hours before the pre-dawn and official 4 am sunrise. Instead of curing my seasonal affective disorder (fuck you, winter!), it’s sort of driving me insane. I’ve been waking up most nights at 4:30 and having a hell of a time falling back asleep. But beyond that, my internal evening clock—where you can tell that you’ve been drinking long enough, it’s probably right around midnight given that the sun set a couple hours ago—is totally useless. I love these countries, but I don’t think I could live here . . . Not only would I never sleep in the summer, but the winters of no light would wreck my soul. You are all a strong people, which brings me to my next random observation . . .
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis)
Here in Riga, Latvia (which, contrary to Upstate New York beliefs is pronounced “Ree-ga,” not “RYE-ga”), we’re staying at a place on Lāčplēša iela (street). “Lāčplēsis” is the name of the most famous Latvian hero, a “bear-slayer” who “kills a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands.” According to Kaija—our resident Latvian and expert on bear slaying—a better translation of “Lāčplēsis” is “bear-ripper,” “the one who rips bears.” Although that didn’t work out so well against the Big Bear of Mother Russia, it’s best not to fuck with Latvians . . .
Plus, the bags Biblioasis gave out at BEA say “Ten Years of Fucking Amazing Books.” For that reason alone you should buy and read this.
Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Martin E. Weir (Melville House Books)
This entry is a three-parter: First off, I really loved Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch. And although I was less into The Colonel, which got a ton of critical acclaim, I can’t wait to get my hands on this novel about the Iran-Iraq conflict and a journalist asked to fabricate a story to demoralize Iranian soldiers. One interesting note: Dowlatabadi has also written a 10-volume, 3,000-page saga about a Kurdish family. Melville should do this and bill him as the Iranian Knausgaard.
Speaking of thirst (again, apologize for my awful segues), the topic of alcoholism came up a number of times in our meetings with Estonian writers. It was most bluntly—and bleakly—presented in the talk with Peeter Sauter. He was reluctant to talk directly about the novel his was “pitching,” so instead he told us a bunch of stories about his life, other writers, Estonia in general. But then things took a turn . . . “When I got divorced, I got mad. I went around town attacking women . . . drunk. I knew this was a bad thing.” Amid the boozing and depression, he met a woman, and they started a relationship. Around that time, Peeter’s twenty-something son came to live with him. Then, suddenly, soul-crushingly, died of a heart attack. Peeter’s new book is about that.
And speaking of alcoholism, if you haven’t been watching Legit, the Jim Jeffries vehicle on FXX, you must. Not only is it a very funny show—a lot of it is laugh till you hurt funny in that way that mixes situational comedy with the sharp perceptions of a stand-up comedian at the top of his game—but over the course of its two seasons, it’s gotten real. It always had an undercurrent of emotional intensity—one of the main characters has MD and is paralyzed—but the second season is a heart-wrenching (to the point I can barely watch) depiction of alcoholism and how much it can ruin your life. Calling something “dark” is totally cliched, but that’s the best word for Legit. It’s a show that hurts in all of the best ways and way more people should be watching it.
Conversations by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
Although I’m only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked more about Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio with people than any other book I’ve read in the past couple years. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m reading it at the exact perfect time—it’s all about Estonia and Livonian history and culture, and I keep running into things referenced in the book—but there’s something to the narrator’s voice that makes this an incredibly easy book to get into and inhabit. Basically, it’s one man’s recounting of his relationship with a famous Estonian singer. Not necessarily a sexual relationship—he’s gay, she’s married—but there is a sort of sorting out on his behalf of how a woman like this, one from humble Estonian origins but converted into an East European diva, is wedded to his own self-perceptions, especially as an Estonian who’s been living in the great metropolis of Paris. It’s a brilliant book and a great entryway to Baltic literature.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)
Given the fact that this novel has received some truly mixed reviews, and sounds to me like a pop book constructed of well-worn elements of a different age, this seems like the perfect place to talk about music in Eastern Europe. One of my long-running jokes is that Bon Jovi (and Guns ‘n’ Roses) exist only for Eastern European radio stations. This is a harsh truth: traditionally, the pop stations in this part of the world play some really trashy American crap. The 80s never left the Soviet Bloc!
I’ve been pleasantly surprised in our visits to the local cafes here in Riga. For the most part they all have been playing indie rock circa 2012—Foster the People, Grimes, Dirty Projectors—which is both a relief and a disappointment. (We’ve heard some Latvian rock, but mostly stuff that’s more classic.) That said, on the drive home from Open Letter author Inga Ābele’s gorgeous estate we heard “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. That’s more like it, Latvija!
(Of course, the Spin Doctors played the largest festival in Rochester last year . . . Because Rochester, NY is basically Eastern Europe—always twenty years behind the time. BOOM.)
Tonight we are going to Ala, a great bar with amazing live culture beer, to listen to folk songs and karaoke. I already know how this ends.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random House)
Inga Ābele lives in one of the most relaxing, amazing estates I’ve ever been privileged to visit. I say “estate,” because there’s a very gorgeous modern house surrounded by three other barns and guest houses, including one that was built like a thousand years ago or something. Plus, they have a sauna next to a little pond and are only a short walk through the woods to a spring with pure, cool water. There are ostriches nearby. And peacocks. And a billion mosquitos.
While walking to the springs I stopped to read a bunch of the little signposts printed in English. Most all of them were about local flora and fauna—including some very rare ants that creeped me out—and were written in janky almost-English. “It is for the sprouting times!” Also, every single one ended with the phrase “PLANT IS SOMEWHAT POISONOUS!” in ALL-CAPS and bold.
I have so many questions about this . . . First off, the pictures on these signs made exactly none of these plant recognizable, and based on where the signs were posted, you may well have been trekking through the “SOMEWHAT POISONOUS” plant just to read about how it may poison you. Also, “somewhat”? The hell does that indicate? Like rashy poisonous or eat-it-and-die poisonous? And poisonous to what and/or whom? Birds? People? SO MANY QUESTIONS, LATVIAN SIGN WRITER!
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Black Cat)
I talked about this book on an upcoming podcast and it really might be the summer title that I’m most looking forward to. It’s also an appropriate title under which to include the story of the Riga Cat House.
The real story of this cat can be found on Wikipedia with a simple search, but I want to relay Kaija’s slightly embellished version (further embellished by me).
Way back in the middle ages of Latvia—aka the early 1900s—two businessmen got in a huge fight. One lied to the other, the other corrupted the first one’s daughter, there were more lawsuits more complicated than those found in Bleak House, both businessmen wanted the other totally destroyed—it was like a cold war of the merchant class. As a final effort to irritate Businessman A, the other businessman, knowing how much Businessman A hated the “filthy” cats that populate the Old Town of Riga, put a statue of a pissed off, about to poop cat on top of one of his turrets and aimed the cat’s asshole right at the other businessman’s window. This was like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Businessman A went totally insane, petitioning the city council to make Businessman B turn the asshole away from his window . . . “It’s just a cat!” “It’s a cat that wants to poop on me and suck out my soul! Filthy cats!” Eventually, Businessman A’s house burnt down, he died, and, out of a crippling karmic fear, Businessman B turned the cat around so it could shit on his own house, then he went and hid in the countryside and was never heard from again.
Now they sell shirts and coffee mugs and reproductions of the pooping cat. And as legend has it, if you drink Black Balsam (a regional herbal liquor that’s both kind of gross and kind of amazing, and which loosely translates as “Witches Brew”) under a full moon out of a pooping cat shot glass, you can control the mind of the Russian nearest to you. So, that. Rock on, Livonia!
That’s it for now. Enjoy June with all its sun, soccer, and books!
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 Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale and published by Melville House Books
This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, one of the foremost Iranian authors of his generation, has so far been unrepresented in English translation due to the political nature of his works—all credit, then, to both Haus Publishing (and Melville House Books) and English PEN for their support in making The Colonel available. Credit must also be given to translator Tom Patterdale, whose avoidance of Latinate English vocabulary in preference for words with Anglo-Saxon roots is a valiant attempt to reproduce some of the convention-shattering effects of what he describes as Dowlatabadi’s “rough and ready” Persian.
The action unfolds over the course of one rainy night in a small Iranian town, a few years into the violent aftermath of the 1979 revolution, though Dowlatabadi reaches even further back into the recent history of his country, for example to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, to demonstrate the ways in which the past constantly impinges upon the present. At the very start of the book is the eponymous Colonel, an officer in the shah’s army, receives a knock at the door
Every knock at the door broke the caressing silence of the rain. There was nothing but the sound of unremitting rain drumming on the rusty tin roof, so unceasing that it amounted to silence.
They have come to inform him of the death of his youngest daughter, Parwaneh, who has died while being tortured by the regime. The rest of the book concerns the Colonel’s increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve Parwaneh’s body and ensure that she is buried, with at least some sense of propriety, before the night is over.
It is ironic that while the story concerns the attempts at burial, what actually results over the course of the book is a great deal of unearthing, specifically of the Colonel’s guilt over past mistakes, both private and professional, and of the various fates of his five children, none of which have escaped unscathed from the violence and political upheaval. While in the main body of the text, the Colonel is allowed the luxury of reminiscing over his younger, stronger days, his italicized thoughts, with their burden of past guilt, constantly threaten to destabilise the narrative which the Colonel has constructed to quell his conscience.
The Colonel is undoubtedly a dark read, with not much in the way of hope to alleviate the bleakness. Nevertheless, its ‘alternative history’ of the revolution is passionately, powerfully nightmarish, a great literary achievement in addition to being a brave and important window onto a world of which English-readers are still all too ignorant.
Our latest review is of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch, which was one of our Top 10 Best Translations of 2007.
Despite the fact that Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is considered one of Iran’s greatest writers (according to his Wikipedia entry, “He wrote Kalidar novel which is one of the most important significant of Iranian culture.”), it seems like Missing Soluch slipped through the reviewing cracks when Melville House brought it out a few months ago. Ben Lytal of the New York Sun praised it, claiming that after The Savage Detectives and Out Stealing Horses this was the book from 2007 that he most wanted to recommend.
Maybe it’s because of the understated cover, or the deceptive length of the book, but along with a positive write-up in PW Lytal’s recommendation seems to be it. Which is really quite unfortunate, since this is a powerful and strangely compelling book.
I say “strangely compelling” because I’m having a hard time explaining why I was so engrossed in reading this. The story is pretty straightforward—the book opens with Mergan waking to find her husband Soluch missing. Apparently he’s just taken off, leaving her and their two sons (Abbas and Abrau) and their daughter (Hajer) to fend for themselves. He may have left to find work, or possibly to go to the city . . . this uncertainty is one of the undercurrents running throughout the book. That and the constant desire for various characters to try and find enough work to sustain them for the next day.
The village where Mergan and her family lives is a small, rural, remote place, where a small cadre of landowners are scheming to take over “God’s Land” (where the poorest of the poor farm) in order to raise pistachios. How this land is acquired, and the way this impacts and divides Mergan’s family makes up the major plot line of the book.
Although the translation is clunky at times, and characters occasionally speak in an oddly wooden fashion, there is something captivating in the deceptively simple prose.
As long as you still have your eyes, everything looks normal. But if somehow suddenly you’re blinded—say, by a hot iron or by a beast’s cold claw—all at once you can no longer see the fire int he fireplace that you had stoked for all your life. For the first time, you realize what you’ve given up, what a dear thing it is you’ve lost: Soluch.
Contrasting the more lyrical, metaphorical elements of the prose are unrelenting descriptions of violence: the two boys beating up another man in the village, Hajer’s soon-to-be husband nearly beating his wife to death after his mother is crushed by her collapsing house, Hajer’s disturbing first sexual encounter with her husband, Abrau attacking his mother with a tractor . . . the list goes on and on. (The scene in which an insane camel attacks Abbas will haunt me forever.)
Echoing Ben Lytal’s comment, I don’t know enough about Persian literature to place this within a particular tradition, but generally speaking it’s a pretty conventional, realistic novel. Dowlatabadi does capture the feel of the village, of it’s diverse inhabitants (the sections about Hajj Salem and his son Moslem are especially funny and energetic), and of the struggles these people face just trying to survive.
There are some flaws in the book—the pacing is slow at points, some of the speeches about the tractor and modernization of the farmlands are quite pedantic—but on the whole, it’s an interesting book that’s an interesting contrast to the more self-conscious, overly structured novels that came out last year.
by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Translated from the Persian by Kamran Rastegar
507 pgs, $16.95
From Ben Lytal’s column in the New York Sun
But the book that, this year, I have most wanted to recommend is almost totally unknown. “Missing Soluch” (Melville House, 507 pages, $16.95) is Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s first novel translated into English, and it has hardly been reviewed at all. I’ve found references to Mr. Dowlatabadi in articles about Iranian censorship, but that’s all. “Missing Soluch” is an Iranian book, and I don’t know how to place it in that national literature. It has stayed with me because I don’t know where to leave it; it remains a question mark.
“Missing Soluch” is not a perfect book, but it makes a deep impression. It reads like an ancient thing. Its characters could not be called mythic or epic, but they inhabit a village in pre-revolutionary Iran that belongs to a genre other than that of the bourgeois novel. To see them come alive in Mr. Dowlatabadi’s book is to see how the novel works, and how reliable a medium it can be. His heroine, the stoic Mergan, would never guess that a novel is being written about her.
Does sound fascinating, and did make our best translations list.
Thankfully, Ben Lytal of the New York Sun somewhat rectified the situation.
The book sounds pretty interesting in and of itself—according to Melville House, it’s “the first [Iranian novel] ever written in the everyday language of the Iranian people”—but what caught my eye was that the Association of American Publishers’ Freedom to Publish Committee “joined in launching this book to support the publication of voices censored by the State Department’s ban of books from the ‘Axis of Evil.’ “
As always, Melville House deserves praise for the political edge to their publishing mission, and I hope this sentiment catches on. More publishers out there should be out there discovering and promoting great books from “our” ideological enemies.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .