I’ve been waiting all week to write this post of three things that I’m loving, can’t wait to read, and hate. It’s rare that I know which books I want to include so far in advance, but immediately after posting last week’s edition, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Since the lists I’ve been posting the past few days—and plan on continuing for as long as I can—have been taking up so much time, I’m just going to jump into this week’s stuff.
Book I’m Reading and Loving: The Boys by Toni Sala, translated from the Catalan by Mara Fay Lethem (Two Lines)
A lot of times, the books I choose for my spring “World Literature & Translation” are ones that I’ve wanted to get to for a while, but haven’t found the time or motivation to actually get to. By assigning them to my students, I feel OK about setting aside some of my other work to dive into these.
I have a bunch of books like this I have to read over the next couple months, but I decided to start with Toni Sala’s The Boys, and holy shit this is so good. Initially, I was a bit worried about reading it. All year I’ve been having severe death anxiety panic attacks, and anything related tends to make my mind go crazy, and the basis of this novel is that there’s a car accident that takes the lives of two young men.
That aspect’s not very unnerving to me, but bits like this one—from the first part, which is narrated by an aging banker—really hit home:
Being an adult is accepting death, harboring it inside you like a cancer, dying. How can he accept that his own daughter were already adults, that they were already infected? Accept death, how could he? How can you accept something you don’t understand? How can you continue to be a person, if you accept the incomprehensible? Accepting death is accepting loneliness, and the commotion over the death of the two brothers was in fact his resistance to facing up to his age, to his death; his resistance to separating from his daughters, to the death of his daughters—dying, the brothers had freed their parents from killing them, as he would have to kill his daughters the day he died.
For whatever reason, all the talk about death in here doesn’t wig me out. Instead, it’s pretty compelling, and interesting to see how this accident, this forced exposure to death, works its way through the various characters and their life stories.
It helps that there are so many great lines in this book, little reflections that I was particularly drawn to. Also from Ernest, the same narrator as above:
When you have children you spend your life risking your dignity. Your existence lies in the hands of someone else. That’s what children are. They destroyed you. There should be some way to retire after having them. Retire from being a parent.
The book moves through a series of voices, from Ernest to the crazy truck driver he meets at the scene of the accident (and whose section is all about creating online personas, whores, and Catalan independence), to Iona, the girlfriend of one of the dead brothers, which is the section I’m in now.
There’s a lot more to say about this book and its mediations on being on the outside, marginalized in some way, and how, for such a relatively simplistic plot, keeps sucking me in. But I’ll save my further reflections for class. (And for once I’ve finished this.)
Overall though, it’s absolutely worth picking up a copy. The Catalan literature being translated into English these days is really fantastic.
Book I Can’t Wait to Read: Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry (And Other Stories)
I’m really excited to read this because Lina Wolff will be in Rochester on March 2nd as part of our Reading the World Conversation Series. Even if she weren’t coming, I’d be into this book though. And Other Stories (along with Two Lines, who published The Boys) are one of those great young presses bringing out really interesting books that are beautifully produced. This isn’t my favorite of the And Other Stories covers, but then again, I hold them to a really high standard, given how great their books look.
Anyway, in terms of this novel, it’s set in Caudal, Spain and features prostitutes who collect stray dogs and name them after famous male authors, like, Bret Easton Ellis. I haven’t started it at all, yet, so I don’t know how the whole novel functions, but Stefan Tobler (founder, publisher of And Other Stories) said this, which got me really intrigued:
It’s like a Bolaño novel with more of a feminist bent. A pretty unflinching and dark look at love and violence—while also being very, very funny often, and having an incredibly spiralling structure around a central character’s friends and acquaintances.
I like funny and I like spirals. I’m in!
Podcast I’m Definitely Not Listening To: Season Two of Serial (This American Life)
I wasted weeks of my life listening to the first season of this show, which contains all the things I hate about NPR: that smug, annoying NPR voice; the wishy-washy nature of the reporting; the manipulative way the story is constructed, with more of a focus on playing with the listener’s emotions than the facts of the reporting itself; the way Carol, or whatever her name is, seems genuinely surprised to find out that people in this country are jailed because of flimsy, or incorrect evidence. All of it drove me insane, yet I felt compelled to keep listening, to be part of the conversation.
Obviously, I wasn’t the only one with these opinions:
What do I know after listening to every episode of Serial? Nothing. I know absolutely nothing, except that it wasted my damn time, and I really hate it when that happens. Did you know sometimes we send people to prison on flimsy evidence? Did you know investigators can manipulate a witness narrative to fit the evidence they think they have? Did you know sometimes the wrong people go to jail? Did you know the American criminal justice system sucks?
Yes. You did. Either you did, or you should have before listening to Serial. If you didn’t, please don’t be proud of just now realizing this. That’s like admitting you just learned where to vote; it implies all those times you weren’t voting. And you gotta ignore a lot of things to think anything Serial showed us was new. Unless, of course, you get most of your news from public radio, which mostly ignores local murders, making you that person who has no idea about the local string of smash-and-grabs at the 7-Eleven, but knows all about the government in the Balkans. Great: That person learned something. Maybe that counts for a bonus point.
When I read that season two was finally coming out, and was about Bowe Bergdahl, I was momentarily interested. I would’ve preferred something less exposed, less already covered by major media outlets, but whatever. Then I saw this picture:
No. Absolutely not.
But what’s worse is that Kaija listened to the first episode of this new season and told me the teaser at the end for episode two:
“Hello, this is Sarah.” That’s me, calling the Taliban.
Hell no. I can’t take this. Even though I unsubscribed months ago, I feel like my iTunes just won’t let me. Every time I open up the podcast app, there’s information about Serial and a dozen other podcasts that are breaking down every episode of Serial. It’s like she invented the very idea of podcasts AND journalism!
On the upside, it sounds like the backlash is in full swing and not as many people are losing their minds over this season of the show. Maybe there is some hope for humanity after all.
I’ve been a bit checked out the past few weeks with event upon event, travels to London and L.A. and New York (twice), final papers to grade, illnesses to overcome, soccer to geek out about, etc., etc. But now that it’s summertime (I only have one grade left to enter), it’s about time to get back into talking up interesting books (HOLY SHIT DO I LOVE TRAVELER OF THE CENTURY), commenting on the book publishing industry (like the fact that I’m so glad the number of publishers’ branded readers communities is about to explode . . . and inevitably implode, since most publishers make dumb things), and ranting about stuff, like, I don’t know, particular agents who have recently pissed me off.
We’re going to have a ton of interns again this summer, which should free up a bit of time to let loose on this blog, which I plan to do in grand style . . . But before getting into those fun and games, I thought it would be best to ease back into the Three Percent world by highlighting some exciting new ventures, starting with The Buenos Aires Review, brought to you by one of Open Letter’s favorite translators, Heather Cleary.1
The BAR launched last week to great acclaim (including mentions by Bookforum, Granta, New Directions, and the like), and for good reason. This bilingual internet magazine “presents the best and latest work by emerging and established writers from the Americas, in both Spanish and English. We value translation and conversation. We publish poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, visual art, and interviews.”
And the inaugural issue is, to slang it up a bit, pretty baller.
Javier Calvo: The other day I saw a book by Alejandro Zambra on a list of the most anticipated books of 2013 in the United States, and I wanted to ask you this: what do you think of this phenomenon, which to me is one of the most important things that have happened in American publishing in a long time? I’m talking about the attention Spanish-language fiction has been getting since Bolaño. How have you experienced this change as a translator, reader, scout, etc?
Mara Faye Lethem: Do you see it as so distinct from the Boom? Because I don’t.
Javier Calvo: I do see significant differences from the Boom. To begin with, I think the boom was much more a strategy, and as such it had a center. And when I say strategy, I say it almost in the sense of the British Invasion: we’re going to take over North America. Here, I don’t see too much strategy, and as a matter of fact I don’t see how an editor could hope to get rich on the books of Aira or Zambra. Secondly, the Boom in America was a much more asymmetrical phenomenon, the rich neighbor’s consumption of a series of consumer elements related to exoticism and magic.
Look, for example, at the resounding failure as strategies of all the “commercial brands” of exportation of Latin American literature: McOndo, the Crack Movement . . .
In the current case it’s true that Bolaño has been sanctioned by the American world of culture as the “Chosen One” to replace GGM [Gabriel García Márquez] as the Great Novelist in Spanish, but I also see differences: it seems to me that the acceptance of the new literature in Spanish already lacks that aspect of consumption of the poor, the exotic, and the distinct. I believe that now, strangely, it already has a certain aspect of normalcy, acceptance of the two-directional cultural tides that exist between Spanish and English. Although this may perhaps be overly optimistic.
Mara Faye Lethem: Well, when they talk about Aira as the new Bolaño, yes, that implies a certain strategy of marketing. I think that the case of Bolaño has been an astounding example of the unpredictability of the editorial world, and the strategy of buying books in other people’s styles is ridiculous, but shows no signs of waning. I suppose people’s lack of vision, as well as their fear, just get bigger and bigger than their risk-taking . . .
There’s an interview with Junot Diaz featuring the intriguing pull-quote, “We exist in a constant state of translation. We just don’t like it.”
There’s fiction by Giovanna Rivero:
The pointless memories are the most beautiful ones. I must have been, what, eight years old when this guy with a bird’s name, Piri, came to my grandparents’ house. He’d come to help my grandmother with the little sausage and bakery business she’d set up in her third courtyard. It sounds unbelievable, I know, but the house really did have three courtyards and in the third, as I said, my grandmother had set up a real life steam-powered manufacturing line for chorizo and bread. If you showed up very early in the morning, you could imagine the smoke belched out by the grinders, ovens, crushers, fillers and pots being, logically, the smog that rose in a frenzy from the First World’s last generation of machines.
There’s a piece by Mariano López Seoane on Evita that opens by name-checking JLo and “Jenny from the Block.”
And there is more.
Overall, this is a solid opening issue, and one I’m sure we’ll be featuring time and again. (Oh, and while I’m plugging things that make me happy, Heather’s translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Dark is at the printer now. So all your Chejfec/Cleary fans have something fantastic to look forward to reading this fall.
1 Actually, we love all the editors of Buenos Aires Review. Jennifer Croft, Pola Oloixarac, and Maxine Swann all deserve special shout-outs as well.
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 12 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today we’re featuring Argentine author Pola Oloixara, whose “Conditions for the Revolution” was translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Mara has translated a number of really interesting books, including Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Pandora in the Congo and David Trueba’s Learning to Lose. She wrote the piece below about her experience working on this story for Granta.
There is plenty about Pola to intimidate anyone. Her Facebook fan page proclaims her “The Wonder Woman of the 21st Century”. She is an expert on orchids. Her dimpled smile could launch a thousand ships. Her writing is terrifically brainy and peppered with references. So when I tried to step into her shoes, to channel her spirit to lead my fingers across the keys like a Ouija board, it involved more than the usual leap of faith. Screwing up my courage, I opted for some serious deconstruction and research, then worked to put back together the pieces while maintaining Pola’s ever-present humor.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Argentines. (Or was it Argentinians? Or Argentineans, as my spell check insists?) I’d translated authors from Argentina before. But never an Argentine as Argentine as Pola. The fact that her work is intensely local one of her assets, but for a translator who has never set foot on Argentine soil, it presents some challenges. I enlisted a porteño informant who wouldn’t laugh in my face when I asked such questions as “What do they sell at kiosks in Buenos Aires?” (Thanks, Nacho!) But the real challenge was not in the slightly different conjugations, the unfamiliar foods, the different school system, the slang.
The biggest challenge for me when translating this story had to do with that ineffable sense of place or, perhaps better put, the culture and politics embedded deep in language. There are so many things I take for granted when translating work from Spain or Catalonia, where I have lived for many years, that have to do with the context. Here we have a Secretariat of Linguistic Politics, officially acknowledging something many countries don’t: our choice of words is often a political act, albeit very subtly, or unconsciously.
“Conditions for the Revolution” has as its backdrop the Argentine economic crisis of 2001, and swap clubs and unrest that sprang up around it. Along with certain terms, like caceroleantes, which have no perfect translation, the atmosphere of the story was, for me, swimming in unfamiliar waters. But isn’t that one of the great things about being a translator, that we are transported to other worlds and have to find our way back to our own, leading the English-speaking reader by the hand?
- Mara Faye Lethem
And to give you a taste of Oloixarac’s work in Lethem’s translation, here’s the opening of “Conditions for the Revolution”:
That morning, Mara went by her mother’s house to get some clean clothes. She slid between the armchairs in the living room and the coffee tables overflowing with magazines; she didn’t want to run into her. On the modular shelving in the library, flanked by books by Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez, the computer screen showed an unfinished game of solitaire. Mother Cris wasn’t there. She’d been a little depressed because Quique, her current lover, had way too much time on his hands. At first he wandered around Cris’s house, leaving his toothbrush there, and then kindly (suspiciously) offering to cook, until one day she gave him a hard stare and said, look, I think that, these days, the most important thing in a relationship is respecting each other’s space, but if you need to, please let me finish, if you really need to, you can stay here. Quique was of medium height and had brown eyes and a disorientated air about him, but he seemed stripped of everything that makes disorientation an attractive or romantic trait.
‘You don’t recognize me because I let my grey come in and now I have a ponytail.’ He had brought his snout closer.
Cris would have preferred that he didn’t make such direct mention of the ponytail; she was enough of an adult – and alone, not getting any younger – to know she could stand the sight of the ponytail, but not talking about it. Quique wasn’t intimidated by Cris’s sideways glances, the deliberate nature of some of her absent and distracted moments. He read it as a display of parameters, a female logic lubricating its own version of the conquest seconds before launching, insatiable, into mating. The sweetness of desperation was an inalienable asset in middle-aged ladies for whom casual sex would soon be a piece of Grandma’s jewellery that nobody would want to touch. Quique was an optimistic guy. He narrowed his eyes, fulfilling his civic role of mensch playing at seducer:
‘In those days I already had you in my sights, but you were with somebody else.’
Cris pursed her lips, trying mentally to distance herself from the scene: for the moment, being the recipient of Quique’s attentions was far from flattering. But ‘somebody else’ awoke Cris’s interest (vanity disguised as interest) from its lethargy and, overcome with complicity, she used the opportunity to laugh hysterically. And yes, she was always with somebody or other. Quique felt as if the fat men of the Metal Workers’ Union were urging him on, gesturing at him with full arms as if he were in a car and wanted to park; you go ahead, he thought, as he slipped his thumb cautiously through the loop of Cris’s jeans. With a quick glance, Cris detected his hand hanging close to her proud ass, her personal PR agent; unable to renounce her chance at playing the coquette, Cris commented: Hmm . . . dangerous. I’m the type that falls in love, so if I were you, I’d think twice. If Quique had been twenty years younger, he would have made a bet with himself as to how long it would take him to penetrate her anally; now, mature and serene, he stuck out his tongue slightly before touching her lips.
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