16 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Mauro Javier Cardenas. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

In the year 2010, seventeen years after I stopped watching soccer, I wrote a paean to Your Face Tomorrow, claiming that “here’s the wonderfully parenthetical operations of a human mind in the 21th century,” a phrase that later became a blurb in Spanish for Your Face Tomorrow, which must have flattered fleetingly me since I’m a frail human desperate for meaning, although the translation from “wonderfully parenthetical” to “maravillosamente parentéticas” must have shorn a few branches from my twig of meaning because I would have been embarrassed if any native Spanish speakers heard me say anything like “maravillosamente parentéticas,” in any case the parenthetical mind of Jacques Deza, the narrator of Your Face Tomorrow, a mind that doesn’t pay much attention to itself because “he’s given up understanding himself,” shares its wonderful operations with us throughout 1,232 pages, during a period in Deza’s life when he was delivering conjectural character reports for the British Secret Intelligence Service and was estranged from his wife Luisa.

SPAIN 1 – AUSTRALIA 0

Looking back at the passages from Your Face Tomorrow that I transcribed to my sketchbook in preparation for writing my paean to Your Face Tomorrow, I’m not surprised I transcribed so many passages supporting my partisan fervor for digressions—“digression is secular revelation,” Adam Phillips wrote—especially when they were written by a Spaniard who translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish, and out of this abundance of partisan passages there’s one from Volume II that I starred as most significant because, according to me, it summarizes the kind of fiction Javier Marias seems interested in composing, so here’s that starred passage in which Deza’s in the women’s bathroom at a nightclub, searching for the wife of a client:

[I] had lost sight of my mission, it had simply got mixed up with a few other things: lines of poetry, images and inherited memories as well as a story, none of which managed to fill my mind entirely, because none was particularly pressing, but they were all floating around in there, perhaps waiting to be picked up later by idle thought—that is, by thought at its most active—at the end of the day, when I finally went to bed.

SPAIN 2 – AUSTRALIA 0

Since the year 2010, I’ve often shared in conversation with my so-called friends two passages from Your Face Tomorrow: (1) Luisa telling Jacques please let’s not live together ever again; (2) “[O]ne never experiences genuine self-disgust, and it’s that inability that makes us capable of doing almost anything.”

(1) The anxiety about domestic life deadening human life, an anxiety featured in many pages of Javier Marias’s A Heart So White, often surfaces in conversation among those who are no longer young enough to playact at wanting so-called meaningful relationships, and what I like to share with my so-called friends who are seeking so-called meaningful relationships, as a sort of literary relationship advice, is something like look there’s this 1,232-page novel in which, at the beginning, the narrator is estranged from his wife, and, toward the end, when they reconcile at last (and here I exclude any mention of Deza assaulting Luisa’s new lover with a sword and telling him to get out of town or else), the wife says to the husband please let’s not live together ever again.

(2) Given the vast gap between our imperfections and our expectations of reasonable perfection, the question of how could we have possibly performed Sin A / Sin B, plus the question of how could we have possibly not known we were going to perform Sin A / Sin B, become central questions in (some) of our lives, or at a minimum we retrofit these central questions around our past Sins A / B, and in the case of Your Face Tomorrow (some of) the central questions that Deza contemplates are how could have Deza’s father best friend betrayed Deza’s father? “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing?” How could I have not known I was going to assault my wife’s lover with a sword so I could get back together with her?

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 0

HALF-TIME

Arbitro ladrón, my high school friends and I would scream at the referee as we watched the Ecuadorian national soccer team miss yet another opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, arbitro conchaetumadre, heaping our juvenile arsenal of insults on the referee because one of our obvious consolations, the consolation of the often defeated, I suppose, revolved around placing the blame for our loss on the rigged ref.

Will I turn out to be a rigged ref because I come from a small, often defeated country? Does it make a difference that, since I left Ecuador in 1993, the Ecuadorian national soccer team has qualified for the World Cup three times?

END OF HALF-TIME

If you come across a new genre, do you raise your hand?

Gerald Murnane has invented a new genre: fiction as “remembered imaginings,” mind as place (“The far parts of my mind,” Gerald Murnane wrote in a letter to Teju Cole published in Issue 3 of Music & Literature, a literary journal that publishes more of my favorite artists per page than any other literary journal, “hold for me the same sort of interest that far countries probably hold for travelers”).

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 1

Imagine “a far-reaching and varied landscape” that contains memories of characters from books, of imaginary racehorses and racecourses, in other words imagine the contents of Murnane’s mind exiting Murnane’s head and populating a landscape that Murnane then dedicates himself to contemplate through his sentences, a contemplation that thankfully does without psychological insight (because who doesn’t enjoy a break from the murky diagrams of human motivation?), a contemplation that consists of unearthing patterns of images as a way to both architect the landscape and invent meaning, meaning defined here as (to quote Murnane from Issue 3 of Music & Literature) “the discovery of connections between things that previously seemed unconnected,” and now here’s a relevant landscape quote from Barley Patch:

He had always thought of the images in his mind as being arranged somewhat in the way the names of townships were arranged on maps of mostly level countryside and that the images were connected by feelings in the way that the names of townships were connected by lines denoting roads.

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 2

Let’s track the progression of one fragment of Murnane’s pattern making in Barley Patch. The chart below, from left to right, tracks the pattern of images that emerges from King-in-the-Lake, the name of an invisible racehorse. Names of racehorses have a peculiar effect on the narrator of Barley Patch:

The sound in his mind of one or another name would often seem to denote not a mere painted toy and not even an actual straining, racing racehorse but a knot of what he might have called compressed mental imagery . . .

The name of the invisible racehorse leads to “an image of a man lying on the bed of a lake of clear water,” which leads to a poem by Matthew Arnold, which leads to the “view that might have appeared to a man lying in the bed of a lake of clear water.” Follow the arrows to the conclusion of the pattern making: an imaginary contest in invisible racecourse.

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 3

BRIEF INTERLUDE BEFORE EXTRA TIME

I will wash my hands, I thought when I heard I was going to judge Marias vs. Murnane, I will let one of my guinea pigs choose for me and I will add a formal constraint to the pig proceedings so as to not appear unserious. Besides. I wouldn’t mind being remembered as the guinea pig critic, or, as my compatriots might say, el crítico de los cuys.

Alas.

END OF BRIEF INTERLUDE BEFORE EXTRA TIME

In the year 2014, one year after I started watching soccer again due to my eight-year-old daughter was scoring 3 goals per game for her elementary school soccer team, I decided to reread Your Face Tomorrow for the purposes of this competition, hoping to relive the engrossing experience of reading Your Face Tomorrow in the year 2010.

Writing rhythmic prose is easy, apparently W.G. Sebald said to his writing students, and as I reread Volume I of Your Face Tomorrow I was dismayed to conclude rhythmic prose can be a decent cover for the unfurling of banalities. Deza complains that people like to tell everything, for instance, but instead of just writing hey people like to tell everything, he has to unfurl a banal rhythmic list of everything that people like to tell, “the interesting and the trivial, the private and public, the intimate and the superfluous, what should remain hidden and what one day will inevitably be broadcast, the sorrows and joys and the resentments,” and it goes on, all over Your Face Tomorrow these banal rhythmic lists. I don’t approach fiction like a critic or a financial analyst, assessing the net flow of pluses and minuses per novel. I have a preferred continuum of fiction, and if a novel adds many pages to this continuum, as Your Face Tomorrow has done, I don’t relegate that novel to my kitchen cabinets (I don’t love any one novel by Stanley Elkin, for instance, but I love so many pages of Stanley Elkin). This is a goddamn match, however, not a vague intertextual pseudo-Jungian notion of fiction reading. Judgments must be made.

YELLOW CARD TO MARIAS

Who would want to compete against an Australian narrator who, as a boy, moved among the characters of the books he read, devising his own strict rules of narrative interference, unable to alter the course of the narrative but free “to take advantage of the seeming gaps in the narrative”? When one of the characters in one of the books he read abandons his wife, for instance, our Australian narrator knows that, from his “standpoint as a shadowy presence among the characters,” he cannot reverse the character’s decision. “And yet, I was able in some mysterious way to add to whatever remorse he might have felt from time to time . . .” I like to think of myself as a shadowy presence among these 1,771 words, adding to my own remorse for ruling against a writer like Javier Marias who has added so many pages to my so-called continuum, unable to alter the course of this match, however, no matter how much I tried.

SPAIN 3-AUSTRALIA 4

——

Excerpts from Mauro Javier Cardenas’s recently completed first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, have appeared in Conjunctions, BOMB, Guernica, Antioch Review, and Witness. His interviews and essays on/with László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Juan Villoro, and Antonio Lobo Antunes have appeared in Music & Literature, San Francisco Chronicle, BOMB, and the Quarterly Conversation.

——

Did Barley Patch Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


21 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece from Jeremy Garber on Javier Marías’s The Infatuations, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and available from Knopf.

I could take a year off of work just to read, and at the end of that year, my “to read” bookshelves would still be overflowing and I’d still feel like I didn’t get to all the things that I wanted.

I only mention this because my copy of Marías’s The Infatuations arrived yesterday and made me want to set aside everything else. (Except for the fact that that “everything else” is editing Juan José Saer’s La Grande, which may very well be the best book I’ve read since reading Saer’s Scars.) But, I also still have the Marías trilogy to get to. And a stack of 12-14 books that I want to review for Three Percent. And I now have cable and all of the La Liga, Premiere League, Serie A, and Ligue 1 games to watch. And.

Anyway, Jeremy Garber — who is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore and has written for The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on Powells.com—wrote this fantastic review of The Infatuations. Jeremy’s reviews are always really fantastic, and I love his technique of inserting a ton of quotes from the book itself.

Here’s the opening:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

Being that there are so many ways in which one might consider a book’s overall effect (to say nothing of how certain elements may appeal to one reader over another), it can be rather arduous to convey what it is about a particular work that makes it resonate as it does. To some, prose is paramount. to others, believable characters and their development, with whom a reader can identify or at least empathize. Faithful dialogue, compelling plot, philosophical asides, broad scope, cross-cultural relevance, clever construction, unique narrative stylings, memorable voice, a timeless quality—all these and more are reasons often given when discussing what it is about a work of fiction that makes it so distinguished or outstanding. The one commonality shared by all the world’s great novels, however, be they past or present, is their remarkable ability to stay with us long after we’ve set the story aside. So it is with Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos).

Published to wide acclaim in his native spain in 2011, the disputed king of Redonda’s most recent offering is a murder mystery par excellence. no mere formulaic thriller, Marías’s tale is one of perception, memory, grief, love, death, complicity, circumstance, doubt, chance, delusion, the multiplicity of motivation, and, of course, the nature of infatuation. Set within the capital city of Madrid and using a violent (and seemingly senseless) murder as its catalyst, the story follows María Dolz, a publishing house employee who entangles herself, however inadvertently at the onset, in the heinous crime’s aftermath.

Click here to read the entire review.

21 August 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

Being that there are so many ways in which one might consider a book’s overall effect (to say nothing of how certain elements may appeal to one reader over another), it can be rather arduous to convey what it is about a particular work that makes it resonate as it does. To some, prose is paramount. to others, believable characters and their development, with whom a reader can identify or at least empathize. Faithful dialogue, compelling plot, philosophical asides, broad scope, cross-cultural relevance, clever construction, unique narrative stylings, memorable voice, a timeless quality—all these and more are reasons often given when discussing what it is about a work of fiction that makes it so distinguished or outstanding. The one commonality shared by all the world’s great novels, however, be they past or present, is their remarkable ability to stay with us long after we’ve set the story aside. So it is with Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos).

Published to wide acclaim in his native spain in 2011, the disputed king of Redonda’s most recent offering is a murder mystery par excellence. no mere formulaic thriller, Marías’s tale is one of perception, memory, grief, love, death, complicity, circumstance, doubt, chance, delusion, the multiplicity of motivation, and, of course, the nature of infatuation. Set within the capital city of Madrid and using a violent (and seemingly senseless) murder as its catalyst, the story follows María Dolz, a publishing house employee who entangles herself, however inadvertently at the onset, in the heinous crime’s aftermath.

All this information was published over a period of two days, the two days following the murder. Then the item vanished from the press completely, as tends to happen with all news nowadays: people don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened, and to know that the world is full of reckless acts, of dangers, threats and bad luck that only brush past us, but touch and kill our careless fellow human beings, or perhaps they were simply not among the chosen. We live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief, not a trace. We don’t want to go too deeply into anything or linger too long over any event or story, we need to have our attention shifted from one thing to another, to be given a constantly renewed supply of other people’s misfortunes, as if, after each one, we thought: “How dreadful. But what’s next? What other horrors have we avoided? We need to feel that we, by contrast, are survivors, immortals, so feed us some new atrocities, we’ve worn out yesterday’s already.

Once morbid curiosity, fascination, and, perhaps, schadenfreude no longer fuel our fertile imaginations, a murder (nothing more) becomes as disposable as any of the myriad news stories that we’ve somehow indulged as being momentarily relevant to our lives. Marías works this pervasive and perverse social peculiarity to great effect—intriguing us enough to concern ourselves with the fate of his characters (with ever the freedom to simply turn or walk away), yet forever eroding the space around them from which we can watch safely from the periphery. It’s a deliriously intoxicating technique, one evinced by our daily obsession with celebrity scandal, political malfeasance, far-off disaster, or nearby crimes of passion. These truncated news stories and soundbites, in reality, often have not the slightest thing to do with our own lives, but end up somehow consuming us (however briefly) all the same—as if they were somehow vested with the weight of our own personal stake. María is unable to turn away and neither are we.

Whereas so many whodunnits content themselves with little more than revealing the perpetrator and their hackneyed impulses, The Infatuations seeks to explore and confront a much broader purview. with perceptive observations and often tender insights into thought, reason, emotion, judgment, and the murky fringes of reality, Marías draws us into an almost inescapable role of accomplice and witness. He is able to do this so effectively by extracting the reader from the mystery of the murder itself (with which so few of us can identify) and repositioning one within the more familiar confines of love lost, relationships torn asunder, and the inevitable self-doubt which follows.

We tend to hope that, of the people and habits we cherish, no one will die and none will end, not realizing that the only thing that maintains those habits intact is their sudden withdrawal, with no possible alteration or evolution, before they can can abandon us or we abandon them. Anything that lasts goes bad and putrefies, it bores us, turns against us, saturates and wearies us. How many people who once seemed vital to us are left by the wayside, how many relationships wear thin, become diluted for no apparent reason or certainly none of any weight. The only people who do not fail or let us down are those who are snatched from us, the only ones we don’t drop are those who abruptly disappear and so have no time to cause us pain or disappointment. When that happens, we despair momentarily, because we believe we could have continued with them for much longer, with no foreseeable expiry date. That’s a mistake, albeit understandable. continuity changes everything, and something we thought wonderful yesterday would have become a torment tomorrow.

Is the author manipulating us? Are we willing participants? Are we rendered prostrate simply because the story evokes the universal feeling of unrequited desire and heartbreak? What about the abhorrent murder? Is all grief transmutable and therefore inexorable? Are we failing to see beyond all that is shown?

I would never know more than what he told me, and so i would never know anything for sure; yes, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it, that after all these centuries of practice, after so many incredible advances and inventions, we still have no way of knowing when someone is lying; naturally, this both benefits and prejudices all of us equally, and may be our one remaining redoubt of freedom.

Marías’s thirteenth novel (and the tenth to be translated into english), achingly beautiful and seemingly effortless like so much of his writing, could only have been carefully constructed by one possessed of a compassion and discernment alien to lesser writers. The Infatuations is not a flawless outing, but a remarkable and impressive one nonetheless. Marías’s exploration of doubt, truth, life, love, and violence does not answer any of the age-old questions of morality and mortality, but leaves us with the sense that there is much veracity and wisdom to be found within the shadows and gradations. A master of contemporary fiction (and regularly mentioned as a perennial candidate for world literature’s highest honor), Marías is among the finest european writers at work today.

The passing of time exacerbates and intensifies any storm, even though there wasn’t the tiniest cloud on the horizon at the beginning. We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. it advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labors, so respectful and considerate that it never once gives us a sudden prod or a nasty fright. Each morning, it turns up with its soothing, invariable face and tells us exactly the opposite of what is actually happening: that everything is fine and nothing has changed, that everything is just as it was yesterday—the balance of power—that nothing has been gained and nothing lost, that our face is the same, as is our hair and our shape, that the person who hated us continues to hate us and the person who loved us continues to love us. And yet quite the opposite is true, but time conceals this from us with is treacherous minutes and sly seconds, until a strange, unthinkable day arrives, when nothing is as it always was . . .

14 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The lastest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by frequent contributor Jeremy Garber on José Saramago’s Raised from the Ground, which just recently came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation from the Portuguese.

I assume that Saramago needs no introduction, but in case you’re completely unaware of this particular Nobel Prize winner, you should definitely purchase The Collected Novels of José Saramago, available exclusively in ebook form and collecting twelve Saramago novels and one novella—all for $36! Or $16 on Amazon. (Sorry haters, but really, that’s an insane bargain that needs to be shared.)

Speaking of Amazon and Saramago’s signature writing style, here’s a brilliant Amazon customer review from Ms. Pigglewiggle (no comment):

You get all of Saramago’s major stories of this collection, but there are no paragraphs, no quotation marks, and no periods—just a neverending series of commas. It’s very difficult to follow the story and keep track of who’s speaking!

Yeah, honey, that’s what we call reading.

Anyway, here’s part of Jeremy’s review:

One of the late nobel laureate’s earlier novels, Raised from the Ground (Levantado do chão) was originally published in Saramago’s native portuguese in 1980 but has only now been posthumously translated into English by Saramago’s long-time translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Set in the Alentejo region of Portugal, the novel follows three generations of the Mau-Tempo family on the Latifundio (a large, mostly agrarian estate) as they toiled away in the wheatfields. Despite enduring rural poverty, financial insecurity, class divisions, punishing labor, and the punitive caprices of overseer, church, and state, the Mau-Tempos sought to lead fulfilling lives only to be thwarted often by any number of seemingly ceaseless hardships.

Saramago’s own grandparents (Jerónimo & Josefa) were illiterate and landless peasants and served obviously as inspiration for both Raised from the Ground’s plot and its lively characters. in his Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago described his grandfather as “the wisest man i ever knew.” during the same speech, in talking about this very novel, he continued,

“and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us.”

Raised from the Ground is one of Saramago’s most plaintive and personal tales, with strong characters as much at the whim of external forces as any in his other novels.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the late nobel laureate’s earlier novels, Raised from the Ground (Levantado do chão) was originally published in Saramago’s native portuguese in 1980 but has only now been posthumously translated into English by Saramago’s long-time translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Set in the Alentejo region of Portugal, the novel follows three generations of the Mau-Tempo family on the Latifundio (a large, mostly agrarian estate) as they toiled away in the wheatfields. Despite enduring rural poverty, financial insecurity, class divisions, punishing labor, and the punitive caprices of overseer, church, and state, the Mau-Tempos sought to lead fulfilling lives only to be thwarted often by any number of seemingly ceaseless hardships.

Saramago’s own grandparents (Jerónimo & Josefa) were illiterate and landless peasants and served obviously as inspiration for both Raised from the Ground’s plot and its lively characters. in his Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago described his grandfather as “the wisest man i ever knew.” during the same speech, in talking about this very novel, he continued,

and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us.

Raised from the Ground is one of Saramago’s most plaintive and personal tales, with strong characters as much at the whim of external forces as any in his other novels. Beginning in the late 1800s and spanning the better part of a century through the coup that deposed Salazar, the story follows the family’s generations as each strives to overcome the past and seek for themselves a life easier than the ones their forebears knew. Forever facing the misfortunes and daily humiliations that marked their years (including the ongoing threat of violence and imprisonment), the Mau-Tempos endeavored, and, quite literally, labored for their lives.

Of all of his novels, it is within Raised from the Ground that Saramago most thinly veils his opinions about politics. as individuals (including one of the Mau-Tempos) attempt to organize on behalf of Latifundio workers throughout the region, they are met with immediate repression and draconian reprisals. When the tenets of communism begin to gain in popularity, both the state and church implement tactics of fear and oppression to stifle the growing opposition. Saramago shades his novel with allusions to actual historical events including, most notably, the Carnation Revolution that ushered in an entirely new era of Portuguese cultural and political life.

Throughout Raised from the Ground, Saramago explores many of the themes that would so singularly characterize and bring great acclaim to his later works. His unique grammatical and prose stylings are present, but are somewhat less masterfully asserted as they would come to be in subsequent novels. In more ways than one, raised from the ground bears similarity to the writings of John Steinbeck, a fellow author for whom the politics of labor were not so easily divorced from everyday life. Raised from the Ground is a beautiful, however sorrowful, novel the likes of which Saramago was so adept at creating. From his humble beginnings to the pinnacle of literary accomplishment, Saramago appeared to approach his life with dignity, compassion, and a yearning for justice—three qualities to be found in abundance within this timeless tale of the human condition.

Although most of his books have been available in English for some time, there still remains a fair amount of as-yet unrendered works well deserving of translation (including poetry, diaries, short stories, a children’s book, and at least two novels). Earlier this year, Claraboia, a “lost” Saramago novel written nearly 60 years ago, was published for the first time (in both Portuguese and Spanish) and is likely slated for an English translation. Fans of his remarkable career that have not yet done so are strongly encouraged to seek out Miguel Gonçalves Mendes’s 2010 documentary José y Pilar, a gorgeous, touching film about Saramago and his wife, Pilar del Rio.

Every day has its story, a single minute would take years to describe, as would the smallest gesture, the careful peeling away of each word, each syllable, each sound, not to mention thoughts, which are things of great substance, thinking about what you think or thought or are thinking, and about what kind of thought it is exactly that thinks about another thought, it’s never-ending.

*beautifully rendered into english by saramago’s long-time translator, margaret jull costa

25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I want to do a podcast sometime about the difficulties of reading. Everything from the amount of time it takes to read a book (and where that time comes from) to what makes a particular book (Finnegans Wake for example) tricky to get into, to books that one avoids because they “seem” like they’d be a bit of a grind. There’s a lot about this topic that I find fascinating, and a huge part of it revolves around the distance between what is expected of a book—”Gravity’s Rainbow is just so nonlinear!”—and the actual process of processing the words on the page.

One of the reasons that a lot of people give for why they do (or why they should) read international fiction is to “get a sense of what life is like in other cultures.” Which is sweet and admirable and maybe a bit LolliLove, but makes a degree of sense. Or does it? Why do we assume that a Japanese writer is going to “explain” something about Japanese culture? Is it because American writers like cough Rick Moody cough and Richard cough Ford cough can’t stop being so American? Or is this some sort of weird imperialist hangover, where we expect the Columbians we employ to entertain us to explain what life is like where they’re from?

All of this comes into play when approaching Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which was just published by Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation from the Spanish. For anyone unfamiliar with Atxaga, and to be honest, this is the first of his books I’ve read in full, he’s considered to be the greatest contemporary writer from the Basque Country. And his earlier translated books—Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son—have much more to do with Basque life than this novel, which references France in the title, is set in the Congo, and takes place in the early 1900s featuring mostly Belgian characters.

If you think I’m playing this up too much, just check this quote from The Independent: “Don’t be put off by its non-Basque theme: Atxaga is still the master of a complex story, told with deceptive simplicity.”

I totally agree—this is a complex novel that coasts along with “deceptive” simplicity. Does it matter where Atxaga comes from? The book isn’t even translated from Basque . . .

For someone intrigued by the complexities of reviewing literature in translation, this raises a good deal of questions: how to evaluate a translation from a language the original text was translated into for instance. Or, should this be considered within the context of Basque (or Iberian) literature, or is it more appropriate to discuss it alongside books like Heart of Darkness? Is it possible to judge this book on its own terms, and what does that mean?

I’m going to cop out right now, and admit that I don’t have an answer for any of these questions. Instead, I’m just going to approach this review like I approached the book, looking at the plot, the craft, and the things I find interesting.

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

One of the most obvious, yet striking, aspects of Atxaga’s book is the way in which he constantly shifts perspective, retaining a certain distance (see the excerpt above) while “peeking over the shoulder” of various characters. This isn’t a unique narrative technique, per se, but the way in which he does it fuses so well with the plot that the two are inseparable—the duel is inevitable because this is a novel the needs a climax, but at the same time, the duel is inevitable because each player in the novel has to react to surrounding events in a particular way. This perspective jumping isn’t the most advanced of narrative techniques, but it’s done in such a way that it opens up scenes and complicates them in interesting ways. From Chapter XVIII:

The canoe almost capsized when Van Thiegel jumped into the prow, landing heavily on one side of the craft; fortunately, he managed, with another jump, to reposition himself in the middle, where Livo and Donatien were rowing; soon the canoe stopped rocking violently from side to side and they could get underway.

After that opening, here’s a few bits from the next few paragraphs, all describing Van Thiegel’s actions: “Van Thiegel stood up, beating his chest with his fists,” “he shrilled,” “they could hear the drumming . . . he cupped his hands round his ears so as to hear better,” “he was walking with great determination” Theses are from the first six paragraphs, which provide a straightforward depiction Van Thiegel’s purposeful existence in the world. Then suddenly:

Livo was carrying a stick he’d picked up form the ground, and suddenly he struck Donatien roughly on the thigh with it. Donatien looked at him, surprised.

From then that point onward, the chapter—which is disturbed, which is violent—is conveyed through the lens of Livo’s perspective. He becomes the “he” that reflects upon Van Thiegel’s physical impact on the world. Again, not that this is all that special a technique or interesting a critical observation, but the way that perspective opens up the narrative in a whole new direction is both interesting in terms of plot and morality: What should Livo do with Van Thiegel when he rapes and murders a girl just because she liked the wrong man?

In some ways, this book is perfect for a high school English class: you can open up these possibilities in such nice ways in a classroom, engaging students in myriad issues that are essentially unresolvable. It unfolds in a way that’s identifiable and intriguing, and maybe, just maybe, points to why Atxaga set this novel in a country that wasn’t his—where the book could take on a more grandiose universal sense of meaning that would be overshadowed if it was all “Basque Country this” and “Basque heritage that.”

Now the thing I find interesting is none of these things. They’re all cute and curious, and fun to dissent and unspool, and explain why reading rocks when all the other expectations and time stuff doesn’t get in the way, but the one thing I’ll take away from this book, is the descriptions of the various characters who have their minds split into various parts. As things get intense, Van Theigel frequently describes his mind as being “split into two,” and then four, and then an infinite number of parts. This is described in ways that resemble a state of drunkenness, with one’s mind flipping from one image/subject to another, and to a state of craziness, in which a normally normal person isn’t sure what he thinks is OK and what’s not. Donatien has a similar situation in which all of his siblings “speak to him” inside his mind and advise him what to do. In contrast to Van Theigel’s sort of dissociative disorder, Donatien reads more like someone with multiple personality disorder.

In a mysterious way, this feels like the heart of the novel, with characters black and white, colonizer and colonized, christian and killer, all experiencing this dissolution of self and sort of randomness of thought leaving them open to outside, more cosmic influences.

But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean. Get past the non-Basque, Basque aspect and let the book stand as a book that is meant to entertain, illuminate, question, and inform.

25 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a thing I wrote about Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which just came out from Graywolf Press in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

This is the third Atxaga book that Graywolf has published, the other two being Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son. All (?) of his other novels are available in English translation as well, including The Lone Man and the The Lone Woman, but aren’t technically for sale in the U.S.

Anyway, here’s a bit of the review:

In terms of the plot, Seven Houses in France is simultaneously very simple and very complex. (And never quite as clichéd as that sentence.) The novel opens with an information dump of a sentence that introduces the character upon which most of the main plot points will hang:

“Chrysostome Liège signed a contract to serve in King Léopold’s Force Publique at the beginning of 1903 and reached his posting in the Congo in August of the same year, having travelled by packet-boat from Antwerp to Matadi, by train as far as Léopoldville, and then, finally, on a small steamship, the Princess Clémentine, to the garrison of Yangambi.”

In Yangambi, Chrysostome will prove himself the best marksman and the most stoic (and moral) soldier of the Belgian empire. He’ll also meet a range of characters—Captain Lalande Biran, a sometimes poet who is smuggling mahogany and ivory into Europe to buy his fetching wife the seven houses in France she’s always wanted; Lieutenant Van Thiegel, who wants to make Mrs. Biran his 200th conquest of the sexual sort, and isn’t so amused by Chrysostome’s accuracy with a gun; Donatien, Captain Biran’s orderly, who seems always unsure of what the morally correct choice might be; and Livo, a local who works at the club serving the army folk, which, one can imagine, is a painful privilege, experiencing firsthand the contempt these soldiers have towards the local tribes, but also being able to steal crackers for his daughter—who will all play off one another in an intricate pattern that’s related in such a way that all of the happenings feel almost inevitable.

Not to give too much away—something that matters more for this book than others, since you’re most likely to get swept away in the plot than anything else—but Chrysostome and Van Thiegel get locked into a man-take-all sort of one-sided battle (Chysostome, who is pretty much the moral heart of this book, doesn’t really go for that dick-wagging sort of thing) that results in: rape, murder, poisoning, and a duel. That may sound like the basis for a made-for-TV-movie, but in Seven Houses in France it evolves in a way that, due in large part to Atxaga’s skill in crafting a compelling narrative, is so natural that it goes unquestioned.

To read the whole thing, just click here.

22 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This summer has been a crapton of busy. There’s the normal publsihing10bookswiththreeemployeesOMG sort of daily adrenaline rush, and on top of that, and on top of working with a half-dozen interns and apprentices, this summer has been consumed by planning and planning and fretting over and planning the American Literary Translators Association conference, which will be taking place here in Rochester on October 3-6. And if you’ve never tried to organize a conference, well, don’t. (Kidding, ALTA!) It’s a wonderful experience—especially if you like that feeling of being perpetually behind with everything . . .

Anyway, all that is to explain why I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to Three Percent as I would’ve liked. And why I haven’t been able to read as many new books as I would like. Which is why, rather than writing up long posts about all the new books I love, I’m going to start writing weekly posts about new and forthcoming and recently released books that I want to read.

I’m going to start today with five books from the Iberian Peninsula. This might seem a bit random, but I’ve always had a thing for Barcelona and for Antonio Lobo Antunes. Plus, this summer I was lucky enough to speak at the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon and fell back in love with all things Iberian.

You might think I’m kidding, but when I got back, I bought a case of Spanish wines, bitched up all the chorizo dishes, and checked out all the Iberian-related books, such as The Basque History of the World, which I would be reading RIGHT NOW if I didn’t have two Open Letter books to proof, one to edit, and a Korean manuscript to evaluate. Ah, publishing!

Sticking with the Basque interest (they have their own breed of cows and pigs and sheep! they invented their own shoes! their language is loaded with ‘x’s and ‘k’s! and has no word for “Basque,” just for “Basque speakers”! so unique, so interesting!) the current book on my nightstand is Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which comes out in September from Graywolf Press. This is the third Axtaga book Graywolf has published (Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son being the others), and maybe the least Basque of the three—it’s set in the Congo—but it’s new, and is about corruption and things evil, which makes for good beginning-of-the-school-year reading.

Sticking with the corruption theme, the other book that arrived recently that caught my eye is Peter Bush’s new translation of Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclan, which originally was published in Spanish in the 1920s. According to the NYRB press materials, this was “the first great twentieth-century novel of dictatorship, and the avowed inspiration for Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch and Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme.” That’s some pretty fine company to be keeping, and with Peter Bush’s involvement, I’m totally sold. It’s also interesting that Valle-Inclan—who was born in Galicia—wrote a book about a revolution in Mexico.

Switching gears from writers writing about places other than their homeland, Jose Saramago—whose posthumous output is approaching L. Ron Hubbard levels—has a new book out: Raised from the Ground, a novel set in a southern province of Portugal and featuring the Mau Tempo family, a family that resembles Saramago’s own grandparents. I’ve never been a huge Saramago fan, although I do enjoy reading his books for entertainment (along with those of Joyce Carol Oates, which sounds like a slight to both authors, but truly isn’t), but I’m really excited to read this, since it came out in 1980, long before the Nobel Prize and hopefully before he started relying on the sort of smug narratorial tone that infests his more recent works.

As a sidenote, the Saramago is the second book on my Iberian love-list that’s translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Not-so-coincidentally, I just finished reading The City and the Mountains by Portuguese author Eca de Queiros, which was ALSO translated by Costa. This was the first Queiros book I’ve read in full, and although it’s not perfect, it’s really interesting and has led to my adding a ton of his titles to me “to read bookshelves,” including “The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes,” which is available from Tagus Press in Gregory Rabassa’s translation. This bit of the jacket copy is exactly why this is the next Quieros book I’ll be picking up:

The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes—ostensibly letters, with an arch introduction—actually ranges widely and revels in many forms of discourse. In this singular work, originally published in 1900, one finds meditations, dialogues, observations, grand shifts in tone, occulted ironies, pastiches, lampoons, and and underlying hilarity throughout.

Another linguistic reveler of sorts—and a fellow Portugese writer—is Goncalo M. Tavares, who is best well know for his two series: The Neighborhood series, one bit of which will be coming out from Texas Tech later this year; and “The Kingdom” series, which consists of four volumes published by Dalkey Archive—Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine. I read the first two right before meeting up with him in Lisbon, and really, really loved Jerusalem. (Learning to Pray is great, but not quite as great as Jerusalem.) In Lisbon, organizers Jeff Parker and Scott Laughlin were both high on Joseph Walser’s Machine, the most recent book in “The Kingdom” to be released. I’m a whore for trilogies and series, especially series of this sort, which don’t follow in a linear fashion, but interlock in a more interesting, complicated fashion. Something like Kjaerstad’s Wergeland Trilogy which is built from three different narrators with three different takes on Jonas Wergeland’s life, and structured in three very different ways. Or the Joyce Cary trilogy that NYRB reissued a way back. Anyway, Tavares’s “Kingdom” is more like that than like a sort of space opera trilogy featuring all the same characters. Sure, some character reappear in Tavares’s different books, but the connections between the books are more thematic and tonal than anything else. But I’ll write more about this after reading Joseph Walser’s Machine and the final book in the series.

That’s it for this week . . . Next week I’ll write about a book I want to read to be able to not understand it. This will make sense . . . Promise . . .

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Review Section”: is a piece by Phillip Witte on Javier Marias’s While the Women Are Sleeping, which is translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and available from New Directions.

Phil is one of our regular reviewers, and one of our former interns. As mentioned in the review, he also interned at New Directions, and is currently working for the Plutzik Foundation, where he’s running their poetry blog, A Fistful of Words. (Definitely check out the blog—Phil’s a great writer and great person and this deserves more attention.)

I believe Marias has a new book coming out in the not-too-distant future, but some unnnamable agent (as in, his name should never be spoken out loud for fear of repercussions sinister and royalty related), sold the rights to this (and some of the ND backlist) to a Big Six publisher. So forget that book and read While the Women Are Sleeping and Your Face Tomorrow. And trade ND editions of his earlier works (Dark Back of Time is a personal favorite) on the black market.

Here’s the opening of Phil’s review:

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Click here to read the full review.

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Though the book is not all ghost stories, it does include several, featuring narrators or protagonists enmeshed in their own strange dilemmas of love and selfhood which are complicated by the sudden incursions of a spirit from beyond the grave. “One Night of Love” has its protagonist, who complains of his wife’s lack of interest in lovemaking, discover love letters addressed to his late father from a woman who claims that she is already dead as she writes. The narrator then receives a letter from his dead father’s dead lover, importuning him to exhume his father’s body and cremate it, in order that his spirit will be released and can join her. As the narrator quibbles with himself over whether to hide the letters from his wife, her sexual interest in him mysteriously starts to grow. Another story, “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps,” tells of a young girl who, out of charity, reads to a lonely old woman every day, and before long they are visited by a bullet-ridden ghost who turns out to be the Mexican insurrectionist Emiliano Zapata, coming just to listen quietly to the girl read.

I’m finding it difficult fun to paraphrase a Marias story, they’re so gently off-beat and beautifully constructed. And Marias is bursting with affection for his very human, very living protagonists, as boring and morally repugnant as they might be, which might make my descriptions a little less morally ambiguous than the stories actually are—and challengingly, illuminatingly so, if you’ll pardon all the adverbs. “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban,” my personal favorite, tells of Derek Lilburn, an Englishman “of little imagination, ordinary tastes, and an irrelevant past,” who begins a new teaching job in Madrid on a short-term professional exchange program. He arrives at his new school, where he is given the simple task of locking up the school every Friday night. The first night he is to perform this chore, he is warned to pay no heed to Senor Santiesteban, the ghost who, every single night, bursts out of the school office, takes seven steps over to the hallway bulletin board, tacks up a letter of resignation addressed only to a “Dear Friend,” takes eight steps back into the office, and falls still. Oddly, this ghost is not to be seen, only heard. And no one knows who he was in life, or what he is resigning from, or why: the letter, identical every night, is enigmatically reticent of circumstantial details. Lilburn makes it his personal mission to solve the puzzle, despite the warnings of his superior, Mr. Bayo, who has been down the investigational road and found that it only leads one to admit in frustration that the mystery is unsolvable. The bored and boring Lilburn is undeterred, and shares every tiny discovery with the wearily patient Mr. Bayo, until, finally outdoing his superior, Lilburn finds a way to truly know the ghost—by becoming him, in a strange way that has nothing to do with death.

The private contemplation of death by the living preoccupies many of the stories in this book, but not all of them: see “An Epigram of Fealty,” which tells of a rare book dealer in London who is harangued by a beggar claiming to be John Gawsworth, King of Redonda; or “Gualta,” a brief tale narrating one man’s descent into total ruination after meeting his doppelgänger at a business dinner. The title story, which is the first and longest in the collection, sets the stage for meditating on the imagination’s encounter with death, but it features nothing of the supernatural either. Told from a voyeur’s perspective, the story is strongly reminiscent of Lolita: it depicts an overweight middle-aged man, Viana, who has subscribed his life to his passionate desire for Inès, the daughter of his close friends, whom he meets when she is only seven years old. Now she is twenty-three and they have been living together for five years, to the ruin of his friendship with her parents. He videotapes her body with microscopic attention every day “because she is going to die,” he says, and he wants to have a visual record of her last day on Earth. The narrator watches this videotaping take place on the beach, and then meeting Viana one night beside the hotel pool, he listens to the fat man’s tale. My next thought as I read is that Marias owes much to Nabokov’s sense of narrative play as well—from the first image in the story of the narrator spying on his fellow sunbathers on the beach through his wife’s straw sunhat, this playful seriousness continues through the story’s final lines:

Both were sleeping, that’s why they didn’t wake up or come out onto the balcony, Luisa hadn’t died in my absence, however long that had been—I’d forgotten my watch. Instinctively, I glanced up toward the rooms, toward my balcony, toward all the balconies, and on one of them, I saw a figure wrapped in a sheet toga and heard it call to me twice, saying my name, as mothers say their children’s names. I stood up. On Inès’s balcony, though, whichever it was, there was no one.

The texture of the collection as a whole may seem uneven, but this is hardly a detractor. The ten stories here are dated across a period of more than 30 years, the earliest being “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga,” written (according to the Author’s Note) in 1965, when Marias was just fourteen years old (“be kind, please,” he beseeches his readers). The story is narrated by a man on his deathbed who continues to be able to see and hear but is unable to move or speak, “alive and well” mentally even as his body has ceased to function. A certain lack of maturity in the writing comes across at times with a coarse brashness, a mix of youthful courage and naivete in the tone that can be highly entertaining:

At six o’clock on the evening of the 22nd, when the fever intensified, I tried to get out of bed, but fell back against the pillow, dead. . . . I couldn’t speak or move or open my eyes, even though I could see and hear everything going on around me. My mother-in-law said:

“He’s dead.”

“May he rest in peace,” chorused the others.

Certainly it is the weakest story in the collection, so one wonders why Marias chose to include it. My guess is that it is at the very least to demonstrate that certain themes and meditations that set the writer to work in youth may keep him busy many years later. By including this story along with the much more mature “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps” (dated 1998), with “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiestaban” (1975) and other stories from the mid-80s falling in between, the book offers us a glimpse of a long range of Marias’s life in writing.

The final and perhaps greatest pleasure in the book, however, is found in rereading and discovering that the work is not quite what you thought it was—it’s not the stories only, it’s the soft surprises that burst from Marias’s delicate prose (via Margaret Jull Costa’s rendering in the way that I like best in a translation: she gives the feeling that what you’re reading is decidedly not English, though you can’t point to exactly why it feels that way, as her English at the same time feels perfectly natural—Chris Andrews’s translation of Cesar Aira’s Ghosts is another example of English prose that dexterously retains some flavor of the original Spanish). As I’ve gone back over the book in composing this review, in order to describe these ghosts and enigmatic perusals of death, this is the kind of thing I find—the most careful, disquieting attention to a curious scene:

The young man took some time to reappear—perhaps ghosts go into mourning, for who else has more reason to or perhaps they are still wary, perhaps words can still wound them—but he did finally return, attracted perhaps by the new material, and he continued to listen with the same close attention, not standing up this time, leaning on the chairback, but comfortably installed in the now vacant armchair, his hat dangling from his hand, and sometimes with his legs crossed and holding a lit cigar, like the patriarch he never, in his numbered days, had the chance to become. (from “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps”)

Everyone probably already is, but I’ll say it anyway: Read Marias, read him again, and read him again.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Fr. Grant Barber on Cain, the latest Jose Saramago novel, available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston. That last biographical fact is one of the reasons his review of Cain is so interesting. (That and the fact that Grant is a very good reader.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

I’ll grant that Cain has flashes of funny stuff in it. In Genesis after Adam and Eve are evicted from the Garden they have children who go off to marry people who live elsewhere; no getting around that. So Saramago casts that idea, in all its implications of “hunh?,” using his style of long run-on sentences held together by commas. In Cain adam and eve are speaking in a back and forth with the angel guarding the entrance to the garden:

They sat down on the ground and discovered that the angel azael wasn’t one to beat about the bush, You are not the only human beings on earth, he began, Not the only ones, exclaimed adam, astonished . . .

. . . Then eve asked, if other human beings already exist, why did the lord make us, As you know the ways of the lord are mysterious, but, as far as I can make out, you were an experiment, Us, an experiment, exclaimed adam, an experiment to prove what, Since I do not know for certain, I cannot tell you, but the lord must have his reasons for keeping silent on the matter . . .

Another amusing bit is when god changes appearance from the first congenial companion at the start of adam and eve’s existence to formal, three-tiered crowned fellow, described so clearly that Saramago must have this sort of image in mind:

Saramago was a communist and atheist. He was a harsh critic of the predominant Roman Catholic church of his day, place, and time. An earlier novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was published not long before he was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize—much protested by the Vatican. That novel, with a somewhat lighter touch than Cain, casts “scandalous” aspersions on who Jesus was by imaginatively exploring his life outside of the scripturally accounted-for years. That such ground has been well trammeled already takes away from the sense of naughty audacity; see forays into such territory by Pullman and Frey, whose books landed with something of critical thud. Where other reviews of Cain have gone astray is in portraying Cain as also anti-Christian; it is not. Instead it is much more anti-Jewish-foundational-text.

Time travel allows cain to witness horrible events reported in the Hebrew scriptures teased out in all of the stories’ troubling implications. One example suffices: cain speaks with abraham after abraham had bargained with god not to destroy sodom and gomorrah if a few righteous men were found living there; apparently abraham failed. After the destruction is complete, cain points out to abraham that there must have been many, many innocent children who also died. abraham then puts his head in his hands in sickened despair.

cain and Saramago are correct: there would have been many innocent children who would have died. That is, assuming you take the story as historical reportage. Whatever the point of the story was in its original telling—by my best lights it is a condemnation of those who break the laws of hospitality (not a condemnation of homosexuality)—the key is the heroes, the protagonists. Think any action film: the hero goes about battling the villains, cars crash in chase scenes into other drivers and pedestrians who are maimed and killed, or warrior combatants with no name or back-story falling left and right around the antagonists. They are throw-away props for the story.

So I come back around to my initial question: what are stories for? Saramago repeatedly uses those of Hebrew scriptures to cast them as literally true in all of their gory, disturbing implications, to show god as evil. If you grant that these stories were not recorded as if by an on-site video camera would capture, then they are instead participating in myth making written by people over a thousand years after the ostensible events. This is storytelling to find identity and truth for a people. The Hebrews who were writing down these stories were doing so after having been repeatedly, brutally conquered by Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians . . . as they would have themselves done if they had the economic and military power. Their reasoning goes as it does for all conquered people wishing to retain identity and self-respect, “we are a chosen, unique people.” Every tribe, religion and nation has such tales.

Religion gets used as a scapegoat for the evil things done in its name. Behind the parade of horrors performed in the name of the holy is an impulse common to human behavior. The Khmer Rouge did what they did in the name of right political thought; ditto Stalin. Humans are capable of doing things that are sublime—the arts, selfless sacrifice for others—as well as the most vile.

Literature used polemically to skewer religion, or anything for that matter, can sound brittle. Saramago’s writing here comes down to, in my evaluation, the same sort of strident tone as found in any other fundamentalist writings, religious, political or scientific (Dawkins, Harris et al.). Saramago might be aiming for the tradition of Rabelais; I find this book to be closer kin to LaHaye. I’ll take my religion, and my literature, with ample room for ambiguity, gray areas, room to explore and ponder, permission to find where I and the holy might find one another. I follow Jesus, and he mostly spoke in parables.

Now, if you really want some funny, satirical writing that takes on religious matters, try Stanley Elkin’s The Living End. The protagonist is condemned to hell because God hears his first thought on entering heaven: “it looks like a theme park.” My signed, first edition of this novella has pride of place wherever I move.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and available from W.W. Norton.

Antunes is a long-time favorite of mine. I really love his novel Act of the Damned. And Fado Alexandrino. And The Natural Order of Things. And this book. Also very much looking forward to reading The Splendor of Portugal, which Dalkey Archive is bringing out this fall, and which arrived in the mail earlier this week.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. He’s an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and, in his own words, “a keen bibliophile.” He’s also very interested in Spanish and Latin American literature, and mentioned in the past that he’d like to someday improve his Spanish and try his hand at translation.

Here’s the opening of his review:

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

Click here to read the entire review.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Judas’s Asshole. Now that title would have stood out at Barnes and Noble. Think of the cover art possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa explains that this original title of this novel, Os Cus de Judas, comes from a Portuguese colloquialism. When I moved to a town in the Northeast earlier in my life people called it “the armpit of America,” so I get the expression. While in the novel the narrator does call his base in wartime Angola “the land at the end of the world,” I suspect Antunes is aiming for a harsher connotation than is captured here (or in New Haven’s nickname).

This is Antunes’ second novel, one we’re told has been critically regarded as one of his best works. Because Antunes has covered some of the territory—psychiatrist narrator, Africa, in extremis—in later novels already translated and in English readers’ hands and minds, maybe the power of this work seems somehow less. Then too Antunes himself served his citizenship-mandated two years in the Portuguese Army as a physician/psychiatrist while his country was defending its last gasp hold on their colony in Angola. I at least can have the assumption that a second novel, the most autobiographical one, is a working-through of raw material, so that later works can take the energy, themes, metaphors and so forth into a more nuanced, digested, recollected-in-tranquility (although not much “tranquility” indicated here) achievement. I think these assumptions would all be mistakes. This novel is a powerful work of a unique wordsmith with important things to say.

The novel is grounded in the present, as the narrator sits in a Lisbon bar late at night, talking to a woman he plans later to take back to his seedy apartment for early morning sex. His means of seduction: a graphic, unvarnished recollection of his service in a back-lands army base in Angola ten years or so earlier. Three-quarters of the actual novel consists of these recollections, although by the conclusion the action has moved more into the present. Each short chapter contains paragraphs of long associational sentences. At its heart the effect is of past and present, inner and outer not collapsing together as much as mutually relating, informing.

I woke in the morning to the thunderous sky over the River Cuando and the thought It’s Christmas Day today, and saw in those same weary gestures the usual eternal Monday morning, the heat was running down my back in large, sticky, sweaty drops, and I said to myself, This can’t be right, there’s something wrong about all this, my oversize pajamas appeared to contain neither bones nor flesh and I felt that I no longer existed, my trunk, my limbs, my feet didn’t exist apart from a pair of blinking eyes staring, in surprise, at the plain and then, beyond the plain, at the accumulation of trees to the north, the direction from which the airplane always came, bringing fresh food and mail, I was just those two astonished, staring eyes, which I rediscover today in the bathroom mirror, looking older and duller after the initial shudder of my first pee, and shouting a silent plea at their own reflection, a plea that goes unanswered.

The past—childhood waits for Christmas morning in oversized pajamas (we know that the narrator sleeps naked in the African heat)—tied to the future by the same disembodied eyes. The narrator ties the political to the personal, segueing by naming the idealists of the world—the Che Guevaras and Allendes—in the same sentence and train of thought to the sex that he will soon have with his listener, one without illusions: to commit oneself to even the shadow of love will be to give into the futility of the idealist who scares the world to the point of martyrdom. He draws repeated analogies to the waste of the doomed war to the masturbatory routine that he shares with the other officers each night in their compound huts. His one connection to a native woman ends when the secret security force takes her away to a prison after gang-raping her.

The African woman becomes the country devastated by the colonialists. The newly-arrived narrator reacts to his first fatality by taking the body into his own hut, his own couch, and claiming to the curious orderly that the man is not dead, just napping; soon that corpse metaphorically expands as it putrefies to overtake the whole country. The woman in the bar—sweet talked into bed by graphic memories of fatal wounds, blood, viscera—becomes the face of a society which had condoned this war, and now lives in an enervated state. The narrator fails in his first attempt at coitus, only to have a “successful” second outcome after begging to try again, with his partner faking it. She will now put on make-up and the same clothes and go to work, exhausted by no sleep, the constant flow of alcohol, and the words: an the ordeal she has kept through the night. The woman reflects the country, the society, and the night her history.

But I make it all sound so cookie-cutter, when it is not. Antunes the psychoanalyst understands how metaphors grounded in the inner psyche (mostly id here, certainly no super-ego), and in the particulars of life—a man, a woman, personal histories and the specifics of reality—also weave in the culture, history, and traumas of society.

I’m not sure I can hear the news of an African—or Latin American or Middle Eastern—country dealing with the paroxysms of colonialist histories without flashing on this novel. Antunes in engaging the personal also does so with the political, in effective language which must have been both a challenge and satisfaction for Costa to have translated.

*

Addendum: I’d like to hear from translators—Costa, Wimmer, Grossman, all women—how they cope with engaging so intensely with texts that have such graphic and violent images of violence against women. It seems to me one thing to pick up a novel I’m interested in, which I can set back down or not continue; it is another to engage so deeply with a work, to get not just the word’s meaning, but also tone, nuance. I suspect it causes nightmares.

14 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I somehow missed it when this first appeared online, but here’s a link to my review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, which has been newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and brought out by W.W. Norton.

Antunes is one of my favorite authors, so expect Grant Barber’s full length review of this book to appear on this site in the next week, and I’ll be writing a much longer Antunes piece for the fall issue of Quarterly Conversation.

Back to the subject at hand, I just want to say that The Land at the End of the World is one of Antunes’s absolute best books. I also love Fado Alexandrino and Act of the Damned, but if you’re looking for a place to start with him, this one is probably the best.

You can read the whole review over at Bookforum’s website, but here’s a bit from it:

Antunes’s later novels—Act of the Damned and Fado Alexandrino in particular—are equal parts Céline and William Faulkner. The plots are more labyrinthine, the novels more polyphonic. It’s as if the kernel of Antunes’s rage has crystallized into a complex design, more nuanced in its depiction of Portuguese society, one that requires more engagement on the part of the reader to fully comprehend the tapestry of voices, plots, and viewpoints.

Which is why The Land at the End of the World is like reading Antunes’s novelistic template. It’s very straightforward: Over the course of an entire night, a psychiatrist/writer, back from the war, gets wasted in a bar while seducing a (silent) woman with his tales of anguish and hatred. It advances through a series of rants, grotesque metaphors, and repetitions that lay bare his shortcomings, while making him sympathetically bleak:

I think I lost her in the same way I lose everything, drove her away with my mood swings, my unexpected rages, my absurd demands, the anxious thirst for tenderness that repels affection and lingers, throbbing painfully, in the form of a mute appeal full of a prickly, irrational hostility.

8 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of everyone’s favorite provocatively named webmag/blog is now available and includes a few translation-related items.

First off, there’s a review of To Hell with Cronje by Ingrid Winterbach and translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke. The review is solid, and starts with a nice bit that references BTBA longlist title Agaat.:

2010 might be called a banner year for Afrikaans women in English, if a few fat books can be said to make a banner. Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat won a blurb from Toni Morrison and a review from The New York Times, while a reprint of Begging to be Black by Antjie Krog flew disappointingly under the radar. Somewhere in the middle was Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé, published by Open Letter Books back in September in an adroit translation by Elsa Silke. Not to be outdone by the extravagant praise heaped on Agaat, Open Letter brought out the big guns: Winterbach has produced no less than “a South African Heart of Darkness,” we’re told, “an eerie reflection of the futility of war.”

Heart of Darkness, of course, was published in 1902, the same year in which To Hell With Cronjé takes place. And to be sure, there are other similarities as well: Winterbach’s novel explores the familiar “dark side” of English colonial expansion, and it does it in a chilly, not-quite-accessible way that recalls Marlow’s uncanny journey upriver. But there is a pointed irony to the fact that a book about the Anglo-Boer war should be compared to this most famous “Khaki” exploration narrative. Winterbach’s is a tale told from the other side, of a people formatively stuck between colonizer and colonized. (She is not alone in this effort: André Brink, for example, has made numerous recent forays into white South African vigilantism at the turn of the twentieth century.) While Conrad anticipated the glorious twilight of an empire, Winterbach rests on the tip of an iceberg that’s only begun to form.

There’s also a review of Javier Marias’s While the Women Are Sleeping, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa:

Given Javier Marías’s clear love for dark motivations and ghost stories — not magical realism, thanks, but the kind of creepy Poe-tasting that confounds literalists and raises kids’ hackles ‘round the campfire — While the Women Are Sleeping is initially a confusing prospect. The collection’s ten stories span thirty years, from 1968 on, but his narrators all feel like different flesh on the same skeleton, a parade of bourgeoisie vacationing with wives or visiting New York or taking sinecures in Spain; they exist as non-entities, mere witnesses with interchangeable values. Characters encounter specters both literal (“The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban”) and dubious (“One Night of Love”), but with resignment: where rabbit-hole fate draws, say, thematic predecessors like Juan Preciado (from Juan Rulfo’s classic spookfest Pedro Páramo) or Felipe Montero (Carlos Fuentes’s Aura) deep into the uncanny, Marías’s narrators operate in helpless acquiescence to the macabre. When the nameless chronicler of Sleeping’s title story discovers an acquaintance’s plan to murder his lover Inés, he’s not provoked or frightened so much as discomfited — while the prospect of another’s death gives him pause, it’s the newly discovered proximity to the dark side that makes him paranoid and neurotic.

Of course, that’s Marías’s milieu: for all his promised heebie-jeebies, his real hobbyhorse is everyday solipsism.

There’s a lot of interesting non-translation related stuff as well, including an article on the lifespan of the literary magazine, and interviews with Bradford Morrow (whose new book seems to be getting a lot of praise), Emma Straub (interviewed by super-bookseller Michele Filgate), and Evan Lavender-Smith.

14 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 5 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’s featured Granta author is Spanish author Javier Montes. The opening of his new novel “The Hotel Life” was translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa for this issue.

OK, the “fun wintertime weather” of Rochester has been replaced by mountains of snow and slipping cars and interminable delays getting into the office. Oh, and zero degree nights. People now resemble nondescript bundles, and the idea of walking anywhere to get sustenance and coffee seems as mentally daunting as climbing a mountain, or traveling through the Canadian tundra.

In addition to suffering this “wintry mix,” I’ve spent about an hour resetting every password I can think of since my email account and password were released and compromised thanks to that Gawker hack thing. UGH. The simplicity of using the same password at all accounts has been replaced by unique digit and symbol combinations that resemble the inside of a schizophrenic’s mind.

So, these two things have left me a bit cranky, a lot behind, and having to half phone this post in . . . (Excuses, excuses.)

Javier Montes’s “The Hotel Life” is one of my favorite pieces in here. It’s not the most experimental (also a big fan of the Hasbun, which will be highlighted next week) or the most daring, but in its direct simplicity and creepy moments, it’s a memorable, interesting opening (?) to his “novel in progress.”

First though, here’s a bit about Montes himself: According to Granta, he’s a writer, translator, and art critic. (Here are some pieces from Letras Libres.) He won the Jose Maria Pereda Prize for his first novel, Los penultimos, and just published another, Segunda parte. (Nice. Those are titles I can approve of.) Together with Andres Barba, he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for the book La ceremonia del porno. (And the list of awesome titles continues.) He’s done other things with Barba, including editing an anthology of stories entitled After Henry James. (Again.)

About “The Hotel Life”: I’m going to include to excerpts below, the opening which sets the tone about the narrator deciding to write a review of a local hotel, and then a part of the creepy-odd moment when he gets to his room.

HOTEL IMPERIAL, 17 March

I took only one light suitcase with me, although it was such a short journey that I could easily have taken more and heavier luggage if I’d wanted. Ten blocks, or 1.132km according to the electronic receipt from the taxi. There was so much traffic, though, that it took me twenty minutes. No one said goodbye to me or closed the apartment door behind me, no one came with me, still less followed in my tracks. I was, however, expected at my destination, and the room where I was to spend the night had been reserved in my name. I live so close to the hotel that it really would have been quicker to walk, but I decided to hail a taxi so as to get the journey off to a good start. However short, it was still a journey, and I wanted to show that I was taking it seriously (but then I’ve always taken both my work and my journeys seriously; they do, after all, come to more or less the same thing).

Or perhaps the opposite was true, perhaps it was a matter of being capable of a certain playfulness too, when required. I’ve spent half my life moving from hotel to hotel, but this was the first time I would sleep in one in my own city. That’s why I finally agreed to do it when the newspaper called and suggested the Imperial. I think we were all surprised when I did.

‘They’ve finished the refurbishment now and have just sent us their new publicity pack.’

Initially, I refused. They know I never write about new hotels.

‘But this isn’t a new hotel. It’s the same old Imperial. They’ve just given it a facelift.’

I don’t like new hotels: the smell of paint, the piped music. And I distrust the refurbished variety. Any ‘facelift’ destroys the prestige and character which, in older establishments, are the hotel equivalent of good sense and even sentiment, or, at least, of memory. I don’t know that I’m much of a sentimentalist myself, but I do have a good memory. And I’ve noticed that, after a certain age, sentiment and memory tend to merge, which is probably why I prefer hotels that know how to remember.

I long ago agreed my terms with the newspaper. I choose the hotel of the week, and they pay. Cheap or expensive, near or far, undiscovered or famous, and usually just for one night, but sometimes two. No skimping (they skimp quite enough on my fee) and no favours either. I never accept invitations in exchange for a review.

Not even if it’s a bad review, as some either very stupid or very astute PR guy once asked me over the phone.

People in the hotel world know my views, but an awful lot of invitations still get sent to me at the office (I won’t allow the paper to give anyone my home address). I suppose the PR companies send them just in case I do, one day, take the bait, just in case I relent and end up accepting and going to the hotel, where they will treat me like royalty and give me the very best room, so that I will then write a five-star review, which they will frame and hang up in reception or post on their website, and which will bring in money from guests or, even if it doesn’t and even if they don’t need it, will doubtless bring them other things that are sometimes worth as much or more than money: the approval of fellow hoteliers, the warm glow of vanity confirmed, the certainty that they are, as a hotel, on the right track.

My column, I have to say, continues to be a success. And although the people at the newspaper never say as much, so that I don’t get bigheaded, I know that hotels, airlines and travel agencies are queuing up to put a half-page advertisement in my section: ‘The Hotel Life’.

That success is, of course, relative, as is any success in newspapers and in print. Every now and then, someone suggests I start a blog with my reviews. Even the people at the newspaper do so occasionally. It might be fouling our own nest, they say, but if you started a blog and got some advertising on it, you’d make a mint.

I think they’re exaggerating.

‘Besides, you only live around the corner. All you’d have to do is spend a couple of hours there one afternoon to check out what they’ve done.’

Again I refused. They know perfectly well that I don’t write about hotels I haven’t slept in. It would be like writing a restaurant review having only sniffed the plates as the waiters brought them out (of course, my colleague on the next page sometimes does exactly that in his column: ‘Dinner is Served’. He said to me when we met once, ‘I can tell by the smell alone what’s cooking.’ I didn’t take to him, and the feeling, I imagine, was mutual).

‘Well, if that’s what’s bothering you, spend the night there.’

They may have been joking, but I took them at their word. I rather liked the idea of sleeping in a hotel room from which I could almost, you might say, see the windows of my own empty apartment and bedroom. A night of novelty might buck me up a bit. I’ve grown rather jaded with the years; well, I’ve been doing the same job for a long time now. My choice, of course. And I do it reasonably well, I think, possibly better than anyone, to judge by the emails I sometimes get from readers and even the occasional letter written the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, envelope and stamp, and which the newspaper also forwards to me.

The letters always arrive opened. Apparently it’s a security thing, but it seems a bit over the top: I might be somewhat harsh in my comments at times, but not enough to merit a letter bomb. Then again, I don’t mind if the people at the office read them, always assuming they do, because at least the editors will see that I do still have a public.

On the other hand, there’s nothing so very amazing about being better than anyone else at a job for which there’s scarcely any competition. There aren’t many of us hotel reviewers left, not at least in the newspaper world. The Internet is another matter, there everyone wants to give his and her opinion and to analyse their journey down to the last detail and even write as if they were real reviewers (I think some of them copy my style and my adjectives). There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. On the other hand, the reviews are never somehow right either: they’re nearly always illintentioned, ill-considered and ill-written by venomous individuals or by just plain weirdos: I mean, I like my work, but I certainly wouldn’t do it for free.

In the end, I gave in, which is presumably what the people at the Imperial were counting on when they tried their luck. The editors were thrilled, so I guess they had some advertising deal going on as well. As usual, they made the reservation in my name. My real name, of course, not the pseudonym I use for my column. The surname on my ID card throws even the sharpest manager or receptionist off the scent and means that I can be just like any other hotel guest. That’s also why I won’t allow my photograph to appear alongside my name, and why I never go to conventions or meetings with colleagues. That’s no great sacrifice, mind: they’re doubtless as dull as the reviews they write. Having no face makes my job much easier and – why deny it? – more amusing too. That way, the whole thing has something of the double agent or the undercover spy about it. A double double agent, because in hotels, no one is ever who they say they are, and who doesn’t take advantage of a stay in a hotel to play detective, however unwittingly?

After all these years of only using my real name to check in, it now seems to me falser than my false name; apart from the people on the newspaper, few people know it, and still fewer – almost no one, in fact – uses it.

*

The corridor on my floor was empty and silent, as if it were five in the morning. Or as if it were precisely the time it was, because hotels are often very noisy at five in the morning. No employees, no guests. The thick, gluey smell of new carpets. I reached my room door and it took me a while to work out how to put the card in the slot. Finally, the little red light blinked, then turned green. The door gave a kind of wheeze and reluctantly opened a couple of centimetres. Beyond lay a dark area, one of those spaces in hotel rooms that serve as a kind of no-man’s-land and provide the luxury of a square metre with no furniture, no name and no other purpose than that of isolating the bedroom, at least in theory, from any noise out in the corridor.

To my right, the door of the bedroom stood slightly ajar, letting in just enough light for me to see that the door to the bathroom stood wide open. A gleaming tap dripped in the darkness. Before I had a chance to close the main door to the corridor, I heard a voice inside. Like a thief taken by surprise, I instinctively froze, an instinct I had no idea I possessed and which was, besides, entirely misplaced. To my left, in the full-length mirror in the vestibule, something moved. In the reflection, I could make out the inside of the room that the door was preventing me from seeing. I saw a double bed with a beige counterpane that matched the grey light coming in through a window invisible to me.

A girl was sitting on the edge, towards the head of the bed. She was pretty, despite the ridiculous amount of make-up she was wearing. She looked very young. She had on only a bra and panties. Her hair and skin were the colour of the bedspread. Her hands were resting on her lap, and she was staring down at them with a look of utter boredom on her face. She was blowing out her cheeks a little, drumming lightly on the carpet with her feet and sighing scornfully, exaggerating these signs of tedium, like a child pretending to be bored. Out of the corner of her eye she was watching something happening on the part of the bed not reflected in the mirror. She wasn’t alone. The mattress creaked without her having moved a muscle and someone – a man, of course – panted once, twice, three times.

I didn’t know whether to go back out into the corridor or to walk straight in and demand an explanation. Since they clearly couldn’t see me, I took another step forward, my eyes still fixed on the mirror. The girl’s reflection disappeared. On the other side of the bed, with his back to the headboard and to her, I saw a naked boy. He was probably slightly younger than the girl and much darker skinned too. I couldn’t see his face because his head was bent contritely over his chest: I could see only a tense forehead, the beginning of a frown. He was still breathing like someone about to make some great physical effort, and was running his hand over his chest with a strangely insentient, robotic gesture. Then the girl spoke.

‘Get on with it, will you?’

The boy jumped and looked at her as if he had forgotten she was there.

‘All right, all right.’

He again focused on his hand and let it slide slowly down his chest to his navel. He placed it, without much conviction, on his flaccid penis, which he shook a couple of times, like a rattle. Then suddenly a shiver ran through him.

‘It’s too bloody cold in here.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

The girl’s ‘yeah, yeah’ sounded resigned, as if she had said it a thousand times before, as if she had spent her whole life in that room, sitting there in her underpants, listening to people complaining about the cold. I imagined her arching her eyebrows and nodding in mock solemnity, but to check that I was right, I would have had to stop seeing the boy’s face. She must have liked the woman-of-the-world air that her ‘yeah, yeah’ gave her, because she repeated it.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

The boy started breathing hard again as he went about his business without success. The girl joined in his next out-breath.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t know. Can’t you help?’

‘No, I can’t, I’ve told you already. You have to do it on your own. Then we can fuck.’

‘I can’t get it up.’

‘Well, watch the film then.’

The girl had suddenly adopted the tone of an older sister.

‘Wait, I’ll turn up the volume.’

I heard her feeling for something next to the bed and heard things falling onto the carpet. I didn’t dare change my position in order to be able to see her face again. I was beginning to feel afraid they would discover me there. The idea of marching into the bedroom, pretending to be surprised and asserting my rights had vanished of its own accord. I should have gone down to reception. The truth is, I don’t know if I stayed there because I was afraid of making a noise as I left or because I wanted to see and hear more. It seemed to me that I could safely wait a while longer: if the boy or the girl got up, I would still have time to step out into the corridor and close the door before they saw me.

You can read the rest of this excerpt by purchasing Granta 113. Or, better yet, you can subscribe and receive the issue for free . . . .

15 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, New Directions)

From an interview with superstar translator Susan Bernofsky:

I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.

Sold!

Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (France, Wakefield Press)

Wakefield Press doesn’t receive nearly as much play as it deserves. Marc Lowenthal (translator, publisher, etc.) is producing some fascinatingly strange books in absolutely gorgeous editions. (I highly recommend The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners which is one of the raunchiest, funniest books I’ve ever read. And by raunchy I mean there’s some really sick shit in there.) And Perec! One of the all time bests. And this small book is perfectly Perec-ian: for three days he records everything he sees as part of a “quest of the ‘infraordinary’: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’”

Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Clockroot)

No matter what, I’d include this book on the list simply because I think Karen Emmerich is amazing and Clockroot extremely daring and interesting. But check this quote:

“God was tired . . . He looked down at his earth and what it had become . . . His people had betrayed him . . . Thus it was that he decided to send a new god to earth, a god people would recognize and worship from the start—a god made in their image, a god they deserved . . . He clutched his stomach, leaned over the earth, and vomited.”

Yep. And here’s an excerpt from Clockroot, and one from Words Without Borders.

The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

This is the second Schmitt book to come out from Europa — the other being The Most Beautiful Book in the World — and both story collections sound pretty intriguing. But the real reason I wanted to mention this book is because it is fourth translation of Alison Anderson’s coming out this year. She’s like the C.C. Sebathia of literary translation!

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco, New Directions)

This sounds very cool. It’s described as a “sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism.” It also has a great cover, a brilliant quote from Elias Khoury (“We normally speak of writing as an adventure, but Kilito dares his reader to travel with him, on a quest to override the boundaries between reality and fiction, between literary criticism and storytelling”), and Creswell won a PEN Translation Award for this.

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

With Saramago passing away just a few weeks ago, it’s a good time to look over his career. I haven’t read many of the recent titles, but back in the day, I really liked Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, Blindness, and Balthasar and Blimunda, which is the book The Elephant’s Journey most calls to mind.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (Spain, Other Press)

A couple months back, I met with some of the editors at Other Press, and they all raved about this book. Manuel de Lope has a solid reputation in Spain, and this is his first book to be published in English. All I’ve been able to read so far is the opening sentence, but this (along with the jacket copy and Katie’s recommendation) has me pretty intrigued:

It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway.

28 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

OK, so longtime readers of Three Percent have probably noticed that I make fun of HMH a lot. Mainly because their website is a total pile of shit, and also because of how they treated Drenka Willen. (Seriously, even though the situation was rectified—thanks to the support of Saramago, Grass, etc.—someone’s going to burn in hell for that little move.) And to be honest, there’s a lot more to poke fun at, like the way Moody’s withdrew their credit rating, etc., etc.

But! There are awesome people who work at HMH—Drenka, Andrea Schultz, Sal Robinson, Ron Hogan, Jenna Johnson, others I’m sure I’m forgetting—and I just got their new catalog, which has way more international works that I ever would’ve expected. Granted, a lot of these are big-name, long-time HMH authors, but still, to lead off the catalog with two translations back-to-back is pretty bold for a press that’s also publishing Perfect One-Dish Dinners and Philip Roth’s new novel.

Maybe I’m just easily impressed, or maybe it’s because I’m (surprisingly) in a really cheery mood this morning, but, well, I just want to make up for (some) of the (occasionally) unfair criticisms I’ve lobbed at HMH.1 Y’all are doing good work. And as a way of trying to make up for this, here’s a list of all of HMH’s forthcoming international works:

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

Here by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.

A new book of poems by Wislawa Szymborska is a rare and exciting event. When Here was published in Poland, reviewers marveled, “How is it that she keeps getting better?” These twenty-seven poems, as rendered by prize-winning translators Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, are among her greatest ever. Whether writing about her teenage self, microscopic creatures, or the upsides to living on Earth, she remains a virtuoso of form, line, and thought.

The Box by Gunter Grass, translated from the German by Krishna Winston.

(This is the book I’m most excited about.)

In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives. Memories contradictory, critical, loving, accusatory—they piece together an intimate picture of this most public of men. To say nothing of Marie, Grass’s assistant, a family friend of many years, perhaps even a lover, whose snapshots taken with an old-fashioned Agfa box camera provide the author with ideas for his work. But her images offer much more. They reveal a truth beyond the ordinary detail of life, depict the future, tell what might have been, grant the wishes in visual form of those photographed. The children speculate on the nature of this magic: was the enchanted camera a source of inspiration for their father? Did it represent the power of art itself? Was it the eye of God?

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder.

Carsten Jensen’s debut novel has taken the world by storm. Already hailed in Europe as an instant classic, We, the Drowned is the story of the port town of Marstal, whose inhabitants have sailed the world’s oceans aboard freight ships for centuries. Spanning over a hundred years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, and from the barren rocks of Newfoundland to the lush plantations of Samoa, from the roughest bars in Tasmania, to the frozen coasts of northern Russia, We, the Drowned spins a magnificent tale of love, war, and adventure, a tale of the men who go to sea and the women they leave behind.

Your Republic Is Calling You by Young-ha Kim, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

Spanning the course of one day, Your Republic Is Calling You is an emotionally taut, psychologically astute, haunting novel that reveals the depth of one particularly gripping family secret and the way in which we sometimes never really know the people we love. Confronting moral questions on small and large scales, it mines the political and cultural transformations that have transformed South Korea since the 1980s. A lament for the fate of a certain kind of man and a certain kind of manhood, it is ultimately a searing study of the long and insidious effects of dividing a nation in two.

Solo by Rana Dasgupta.

(Not a translation, but international in scope and background, and it sounds interesting. Although I have to say that I’m not entirely buying David Mitchell + Alexander Hemon, but if that’s accurate, well then, this must be awesome.)

With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Alexander Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.

In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.

1 Apologies aside, your website still sucks.

29 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although the official pub date isn’t until November 9th, a copy of the sixteenth volume of Two Lines arrived in the mail yesterday. It’s edited by Margaret Jull Costa and Marilyn Hacker, and contains a number of excerpts from interesting translations coming out this year, including the new translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, Inger Christensen’s Azorno, Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex, and Tarek Eltayeb’s Cities Without Palms.

In addition, there’s a special focus on Paletinian Poetry, which was edited by Marilyn Hacker, and for which she wrote an interesting introduction that starts with a discussion of Mahmoud Darwish’s “Rita’s Winter” as setting out

one of the paradigms of contemporary Palestinian poetry: a history larger than that of any individual expressed through narratives of the quotidian and the deceptively personal. This stands alongside, and arises in part from the inescapable fact of exile (and the presence of a not at all imaginary occupying Other) as one of the principal components of contemporary Palestinian writing, a paradoxical but undeniable source of its inspiration. But this energy is not insular; it’s also an integral part of the ongoing renaissance of poetry in Arabic (the creation of an Arabic modernism) that began int he circle around the journal Ch’ir (Poetry) founded in Lebanon int he 1960s by a circle of poets including the Syrian Adonis, a movement that, as the Moroccan poet-critic Abellatif La’abi claims, enlarged poets’ angle of vision while revising and recasting their poetical “arsenal.” The tropes and cadences of classical Arabic poetry were met, confronted by European ideas of ruptured and new forms, while “new” ways of thinking about aesthetics were reconnected with classical, spiritual, and philosophical sources.

Definitely worth checking out, and you can preorder your copy by clicking here.

31 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jose Saramago is the third Nobel Prize winner (along with Imre Kertesz and Halldor Laxness) to make the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and his latest novel, Death with Interruptions, is the perfect book to write about on New Year’s Eve:

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day.

Saramago’s most notable novels—_Blindness_, The Stone Raft, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—are all “what if?” stories. What if everyone suddenly went blind? What if the Iberian Peninsula broke off from Europe? Or, in this case, what if people suddenly stopped dying? What would happen to society? Would the prospect of eternal life for all really be a good thing?

The systematic and imaginative way in which Saramago explores all the various ramifications of these “what if” situations is what makes his novels so much fun. For instance, if no one dies, than there’s no need for funeral parlors, causing the whole industry to have to retool. On the other hand, hospitals and nursing homes are suddenly overrun with people on the brink of death, but who can’t die. And how the mafia gets involved in all of this—whenever there’s a money-making opportunity, the mafia, or “maphia” as they call themselves in this novel, is there—is both ingenious and raises some interesting ethical questions for Saramago to play with.

Just the other day, Goodloe Byron wrote an essay on Saramago for Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits that focuses on Death with Interruptions and does a great job describing the second half of this novel:

But thankfully, death returns! She is classically personified, coming to us with skull, scythe, and all, a contrast to the modern view of death as a biological process. Now the story happens again, localized to a single character: an unsung cellist whom death is unable to kill. Suddenly, the story focuses and takes on the tone of an old school romance, and interestingly shares some traits with romantic obsession narratives such as Marc Behm’s Eye of the Beholder. It is a Da Capo al Fine move, repeating the central premise of the book but altering environmental physics from the purely positive world of his later phase, into the classical fables that characterized his first. Though something along this lines was hinted at in Seeing, to my mind, this is a transition radical enough to be considered entirely new for Saramago, and it presents us with the skeleton key to the book. This time, Death is amazed by her own impotence in the face of the human being, who remains ignorant of her, a nice reversal of the working order. This goes to the core of what Saramago’s all about, recalling the distinction between the human will (the mortal, individual spirit that dies with or before us) and soul (the eternal part of man removed from its human excess) that he explored in Baltasar and Blimunda. Instead of judging humanity by what is naturally effective (a la Deng Xiaoping), Saramago is suggesting that we should judge nature by what is morally affective (which, for Saramago, is grassroots Marxism).

What’s always surprised me is just how popular Saramago’s books are despite the fact that they embody almost all of the elements that supposedly drive readers away from translated literature: long paragraphs with idiosyncratic punctuation, dialogue that isn’t set off by quotation marks or anything else, occasional moments in which the narrator breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the reader directly. In a recent Guardian article Margaret Jull Costa—who has done an amazing job of rendering Saramago in English—describes his unique writing style and its connection to traditional Portuguese literature:

With Risen from the Ground, about three generations of an Alentejo peasant family, he began the great novels of the 80s, and invented his distinctive style of “continuous flow” with sparse punctuation. His English translator Margaret Jull Costa says his “seamless narrative voice” is meant to sound like speech. He orchestrates sounds and pauses. She also likens him to the 19th-century realist novelist Eça de Queiroz, “in a tradition of mocking Portugal, making fun of it”.

Granted, winning the Nobel Prize helped bring a lot of attention and readers to Saramago, but I think the warmth of his voice and the unique way that his fairytale-esque novels read as if they could be oral histories, that has made him one of today’s most widely read international authors.

18 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

LanguageHat brought our attention to this essay by Margaret Jull Costa on the difficulties of translating emotion. She uses a short piece by Fernando Pessoa to illustrate this.

Before getting to the really cool thing, here’s a bit of info on Pessoa, who—along with all of his heteronyms—really was an amazing writer:

After the death of Pessoa’s father in 1893, his mother remarried and the family moved from Lisbon to Durban, South Africa. Pessoa was educated in English and wrote entirely in English until he was seventeen, when he chose to return to Portugal in order to follow a university course. He soon abandoned his studies – a student strike disrupted classes – and, instead, set up a publishing company that rapidly slid into bankruptcy. Whilst in South Africa, he had followed a course in business English and bookkeeping and, since he was also fluent in French, he got a job as a bookkeeper and translator of foreign correspondence in a company in Lisbon and earned a modest living from this until his death at 47 from cirrhosis of the liver. In his spare time he wrote mainly poetry, but also essays and articles, and was involved in various short-lived literary magazines.

The only other works published in his lifetime were a collection of thirty-five sonnets in English (published privately) and a book of poems, Mensagem (Message) in 1934. His genius was only recognised after his death and he is now considered to be Portugal’s greatest modern poet. He left behind a large trunk stuffed with quantities of typed and handwritten papers which are still being collated and published.

Now to illustrate the difficulties of translation, Costa used created this exercise, which has the Portuguese original and a translated version where you can choose one of several different English words at a number of key spots in the text. (Such a good use of internet technology!)

Following this exercise, there’s a list of three different translations and Costa’s response and conclusions:

Verbs of emotion are often difficult to translate, because one has to gauge the level or degree of the emotion described or expressed. Here, with ‘pasmo’, Pessoa is describing a high degree of surprise, so I think ‘I’m always astonished’ or I’m always amazed’ are better than ‘surprised’ – too weak – and ‘stupefied’ and ‘horrified’ – too strong. ‘Pasmar’ has more to do with shocked astonishment than with horror. With ‘desolo-me’, again there is no one perfect translation, since the word implies desolation, distress and sadness. As so often in translation, there is no perfect match, and so choices have to be made as to which nuance must be lost.

Very, very cool. And beyond this exercise, all of the workshops on the Literary Translation website are worth looking at.

....
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