19 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I first decided to undertake this project of writing about one 2018 translation a week, I knew that there would come a week in which I didn’t finish the book that I had planned to write about. This might be due to time constraints, or simply because I didn’t feel like finishing the book in question.

Well, it took less than two months to run into a book that I just gave up on: The Neighborhood by 2010 Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

I’ve got a lot to say about why I quit on this book, and how that reflects on readerly expectations, but I think the best place to start is by articulating my own reading history with Vargas Llosa.

Back in the 1990s, when I was working in bookstores and really starting to immerse myself in international fiction, Vargas Llosa was one of the Spanish-language giants you had to read, along with García Marquez, Fuentes, Cortázar, and Borges. There are other (better) Spanish-language authors from this same period (Onetti and Cabrera Infante come to mind), but these were the authors that I felt that I had to have some familiarity with if I was going to make any sort of claim to liking—and knowing something about—Spanish-language literature, especially what was coming out of Latin America.

Insecurity has played such a large role in my reading history. When I started at Dalkey Archive, I was greatly intimidated by the literary knowledge that everyone around me possessed. Not just John O’Brien—who, at that time at least, knew more about twentieth-century writing than anyone I knew—but also Martin Riker, Curtis White, Charlie Harris, Greg Howard, etc. (And that doesn’t even include David Foster Wallace, who was maybe the most intimidating?) The way they talked about the greats of the past century, from Céline to Gaddis to Gass to Queneau to Sorrentino to Ishmael Reed to Flann O’Brien to the wealth of undiscovered gems in the Dalkey Archive catalog (Stanley Elkin! Stanley Crawford! Nicholas Mosley! William Eastlake! Arno Schmidt!) really put into perspective how little I had actually read. I spent every spare moment of my first few years there catching up on the things I had missed. Granted, I had read a lot (someday I’ll write about the insane self-directed reading program I put myself through in preparation for the GRE English subject test), but not nearly as much as everyone else. This is how my personal canon was formed.

Before the Dalkey times though, I had read a couple Vargas Llosa books. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta was probably the first (and a good contrast with Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) followed by Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, of which I remember nothing, and The War of the End of the World, which, assuming it still stands up, is one of those complete Latin American novels that’s political, harrowing, and all-encompassing.

Aside from personal insecurities, the other major motivating factor behind my reading choices was a desire to champion the more obscure greats. To find that incredible, transcendent book that wasn’t in every Norton anthology, that wasn’t being taught, that was rarely on display at the bookstore.

This has not changed at all.

Which is why, at that time, I respected Vargas Llosa more than I liked him. Too conventional. Too accepted. Not fringe enough. But then, at Dalkey Archive, John had me read The Green House and Conversations in a Cathedral and my opinion of Vargas Llosa skyrocketed.

These are both early books of his. (For those who don’t know, The Neighborhood is his nineteenth work of fiction to be translated into English.) And they’re fantastic. Conversations in a Cathedral is probably Vargas Llosa’s most experimental book that has a really intricate structure and requires a certain amount of attention and struggle for the reader to get into it. Exactly the sort of book I loved at that time! Too bad HarperCollins reissued these instead of letting us do them . . .

*


I haven’t read any of the recent Vargas Lllosa books. Nothing since he won the Nobel Prize in 2010 at least. Which is why I thought I’d give The Neighborhood a try. Like it would be fun to check in with him and see how he was writing these days.

That said, I did have some conflicting expectations going into this book. First off, I expected it to be dense and intelligent, with labyrinthine sentences—like his books of old. For example, here’s a paragraph from part IV of The War of the End of the World (translated by Helen Lane):

When a servant informed him who was asking for him, the Baron de Canabrava, rather than sending him back, as was his habit, to tell the person who had appeared on the doorstep that he neither made nor received unannounced visits, rushed downstairs, walked through the spacious rooms that the morning sun was flooding with light, and went to the front door to see if he had heard correctly: it was indeed he, no mistake about it. He shook hands with him without a word and showed him in. There leapt to his mind instantly what he had been trying his best to forget for months: the fire at Calumbi, Canudos, Estela’s crisis, his withdrawal from public life.

The opening paragraph of The Green House is thirteen pages long, so I’ll just quote the first few sentences in Gregory Rabassa’s translation:

The Sergeant takes a look at Sister Patrocinio and the botfly is still there. The launch is pitching on the muddy waters, between two walls of trees that give off a burning, sticky mist. Huddled under the canopy, stripped to the waist, the soldiers are asleep, with the greenish, yellowish noonday sun above: Shorty’s head is lying on Fats’s stomach, Blondy is breathing in short bursts, Blacky has his mouth open and is grunting. A thick shadow of gnats is escorting the launch, and butterflies, wasps, horseflies take shape among the bodies.

Neither of these are “blow your top off” sort of quotes, but they’re both good for setting the scene while retaining a certain distance that compels the reader to try and figure out what’s happening. These are sentences written by a professional writer. A writer who knows what he’s doing. I expected that from The Neighborhood.

At the same time, I didn’t expect The Neighborhood to be anywhere near as great as these early books. My expectation is that Vargas Llosa is past his prime.

There’s no logical reason why an author’s twentieth book can’t be his best. But it rarely works that way.

     (AuthorTalent(TAL) x CraftAwareness(CA)) / PublishedWorks(PW) = CurrentAbility(ABL)

This is a callback. But one that fits, even if that equation is garbage. Basically, authors have a certain amount of inherent skill. And as they learn their craft, they hone this skill more and more. But the more books they write, the less fresh the ideas and the inherentness really seem. The more books they publish, the more craft takes the place of pure talent, and the less interesting the books become. See: John Updike. See: Philip Roth. See: Joyce Carol Oates.

So I expected something really smart, written in a way that was as engrossing as it was challenging, but nothing that would rewrite my general assessment of what Vargas Llosa was.

And maybe that’s exactly what this book is. And maybe this weekend it will get a glowing review in the New York Times or win the National Book Award in Translation and I’ll feel compelled to pick this up again sometime and give it another chance. But for now, I’m done.

*


There’s a great Tim Parks essay in Where I’m Reading From about quitting books. (I can’t find my book, and can’t recall the title of this piece, but trust me, it’s a real thing.) Not necessarily because the book is bad, but because you’ve gotten what you want to get out of the book already, and there’s nothing more to be gained by finishing it to the end.

Granted, this makes more sense if you’re the type of reader who reads the type of books that are more about style than plot (how many people set aside a detective novel mid-mystery because they have a good enough sense of what the author is up to?), but still, it’s an intriguing—and liberating—idea. It’s probably a good approach for reading Knausgaard! You don’t need to know the ending to know what makes his writing particular.

For me, fifty pages of The Neighborhood was enough to feel like I get the style and structure, and that I just don’t care. Yes, I know this is slightly different from what Parks is talking about, but it’s not like I hated this book—it just doesn’t have anything more to offer me at this time.

*


I have more to say about expectations, the right books at the right time, and West Cork, but I should probably make a list to explain what shut down The Neighborhood for me:

1) It opens with a lesbian love scene that feels like someone who’s read about lesbians and thought it would be trendy to include something like this in their novel. It’s like reading a book by an old man (Tom Wolfe?) about teenagers (I Am Charlotte Simmons?) in which nothing sounds quite authentic.

I abide by the idea that writers should feel free to write about whoever and whatever they want, but the workmanlike prose in The Neighborhood mixed with the strange prudishness of all the characters drags this particular storyline into a realm of unbelievability. This is a novel in which all the parts of novel-making are laid bare. You can see it all being constructed, which definitely doesn’t help.

2) Fuck this dialogue. Sorry, I’m done pretending that I can sound smart. The real reason I just quit was because of paragraphs like this:

“Everything in this life has a solution, Quique, except death.” He encouraged him: “Go on, tell me all about it, as Luciana, my younger daughter, says.”


What the fuck is that? Not only is “tell me all about it” not a phrase marked by youth or hipness, but why is one friend reminding the other of his younger daughter’s name. This is unnatural and dumb.

On the other side of things, this is probably my favorite bit:

“I finished the article, boss. One-Eye will shit fire.”


3) This “one-eye” thing bugged me so much though. It comes up in a chapter in which a muckraking journalist is trying to get dirt on a stage actress who shit on his paper on a nightly talk show. Here’s more crappy dialogue from when he’s berating a photographer he hired to get really unflattering pictures of her:

“It isn’t a question of giving her publicity of raising the one-eyed cow’s fees. It’s a question of sinking and defeating her, of discrediting her forever. It’s a question of their throwing her out of the show because she’s ugly and old and can’t move her ass. These pictures are going to illustrate an article where we say that the one-eyed cow is turning the show at the Monumental into a hodge-podge that nobody can stand.”


Admittedly, I’m totally going to incorporate “hodge-podge” into my active vocabulary? “Riverdale is such a hodge-podge!” (Damn it. That’s actually a good way of describing that show. WHICH IS AWESOME.)
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4) I had enough of the plot. A seedy reporter has pictures of a powerful CEO getting nasty at an orgy and wants to take him down. The CEO’s wife starts a secret affair with his best-friend’s wife. There is a guy they all know who has been kidnapped who they mention with near disinterest a few times. The reporter driving the plot is motivated by vengeance. Cool. I don’t know how this all develops or is resolved, but I’m good.

*


Again, this book isn’t bad . . . well, that dialogue is bad, objectively bad, but aside from that, it’s fine. Some people will likely like this book. And maybe it gets more interesting! It’s possible that the mosaic structure of jumping from character to character will spiral outward to people who aren’t annoying and don’t speak like morons.

It’s just not the right book at the right time for me—possibly because of my expectations. I expected something different from Vargas Llosa. And I’d rather not have this book bitch up my personal feelings about his writing.

I know this is by far the most restrained and serious of these posts to date, and as tempting as it is to swerve back to the funny, I want to say two more serious things about expectations.

For anyone who knows anything about behavioral economics, they know how powerful they can be. If you have a certain expectation, you can overwrite what you actually experience so that it fits your pre-existing schema. You can come to believe in insane things based on small samples that happened recently. You can dispense with contradictory knowledge that would enhance your understanding of the world and its nuances simply because it doesn’t fit what you already know you know is what you know is right.

In the class I teach on world literature and translation, this came up in regard to Filip Springer’s History of a Disappearance (trans. by Sean Bye), a work of Polish reportage about a city in Western Poland that has a crazy history and that essentially collapsed in on itself and is now completely gone. It’s an interesting book that juxtaposes factual history with people’s warped recollections and pieces together a fairly depressing history of a place.

My students didn’t know what to make of this book at all. They had expected it to be a “novel,” which, in their world means a book with a main set of characters and a primary plot that’s developed from page one till the end. A book in which there isn’t a protagonist to follow was a bit baffling to them. They had no idea what to make of this book and it ruptured their idea of what a book could be in a few ways—the main one being that they simply didn’t like this because it didn’t fit their expectations.

This is my insecurity about the future of reading: That the way in which the market ends up taking popular books and making them MEGAPOPULAR (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, to a lesser extent the Knausgaard and Ferrante phenomenons, whatever garbage BookMarks is tracking) will create a set of literary expectations in readers that will train them to look for a very small range of things to define a “good” book. This sort of blindered view of literature has always existed, but right now, thanks to our late-capitalist moment and the nature of aggregating websites online, there’s a crazy velocity to books that make it. It’s not like there are even twenty really popular books at any point in time nowadays—there are about seven. And these dominate all conversations, all the top spots on BookMarks as the “most reviewed” titles. They’re on every bookstore front table—B&N and indie—and promoted through every extant algorithm. If these books—which are usually pretty fine, if not using very predictable tropes with slight deviations, basically the NPR of fiction—are responsible for wiring readers’ expectations, there will be little space for the odd, the defiant.

*


I have a lot to say about expectations in relation to West Cork, the Audible Original podcast/audiobook about the still-unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

Firstly, I know this will come as a shock to some, but Serial wasn’t the first podcast ever produced. That said, it would be ignorant to claim that it didn’t have a huge impact on the nature of podcasting. What used to be an audiospace for smart people to say smart things to each other about various topics turned commercial1 and over-produced. And one that was based in a particular style of narrative.

The Serial model—a long-running story filled with reversals, shocking revelations, cliffhangers—spawned a million deviations. Suddenly, this was the way in which podcasts should exist.2 This was all the rage. (For season one at least. You can’t go home again, can you Carol Sarah?)

And then there was Finding Richard Simmons and Shittown and maybe few other things whiskey is preventing me from remembering right now. My basic point though: These all work in a particular way. One hour. Cliffhangers to make the next episode seem like there’s going to be a big revelation. Ambiguity all the way down. It feels really comfortable to listen to these podcasts. They meet all expectations.

West Cork plays this game, but not exactly. There are revelations (for us who don’t pay attention to Irish news), a core mystery, reversals that mostly exist thanks to editing3, and ambiguity. But most episodes are 35 minutes. Most episodes don’t have a cliffhanger. Most episodes aren’t that revelatory. It’s a character piece that doesn’t quite one-up what came before. And can you really be bingeable in 20184 if you’re not one step more HOLY SHIT than the last podcast?

I want to break this series down in more detail, but I highly doubt anyone reading this has actually heard it yet. It’s good! It’s not great! The horse did it! But my point: Do we have a market that can support a quiet version of Serial? Or do we live in the arms race period of podcasting in which a murder has to be THE CRAZIEST MURDER WITH THE BEST CHARACTERS EVER to deserve a listen? What do we want? What are our expectations? And what does that mean about new start-up companies trying to make podcasts? Past performance influences future innovation and yet . . . What’s new and interesting and not designed to tickle the expectations crafted by NPR + Blue Apron + Square Space?


1 Where would Blue Apron be without podcasts? And podcasts without Blue Apron? Can you imagine who would be fucking nuts enough to sponsor the Three Percent Podcast? Is there a corporation trafficking in cynicism and middle-age? Who like swearing and other unpopular things? To be honest, I would shill for anyone—including Blue Apron, which, really? This needs to exist? I hate 2018. (I feel better now that I got one joke into this post.)

2 Sorry, now I just can’t stop. You should check out Finding Tammy Jo, a podcast from the local Rochester paper about an unsolved murder from 1979. It’s pretty horrible! Not only is the title an absolute lie—they found Tammy Jo’s body, they just didn’t know who she was, so what is “finding” anyway—but the production is such an aping of Serial that its identity is subsumed behind an attempt to take a popular format and shoehorn an uninteresting story into it. Also: one episode is just 2 minutes of piano.

3 Someday I’ll write about the relationship between This American Life, MFA programs, and PKD’s Valis in relation to the idea of what you believe as truth and why.

4 I literally punched myself for typing “bingeable” in a non-ironic way. I may have to stop soon. My fat belly can not absorb my own drunken fist.

23 September 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

First up today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Mario Vargas Llosa, who you might know from such books as Conversation in the Cathedral or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, neither of which he chose to include as his “best piece of writing.” Instead he turned to a couple of his more recent books: The Way to Paradise and The Feast of the Goat.

Rather than excerpt his works, I’m just going to post his whole interview below—it’s really interesting.

Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.

Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 1936)

I selected these fragments according to two criteria. First, that each one of them had dramatic significance within the story, and that each alludes to crucial elements of the plot. And second, that these fragments might be read and understood on their own, by someone unfamiliar with the context within which they appear in my books. Two criteria that are difficult to reconcile but that I think I’ve managed to sustain with some success.

The list of unforgettable dead to whom I return time and again, in my memory or by rereading, is long and would fill several pages. Picking a small number of names from among them I have to cite the great novelists of the nineteenth century like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac; from the classics like Cervantes, Quevado, and Góngora, to Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanch, to the Homeric poems I discovered in my old age, to many writers who revealed to me miracles of technique and prose in the telling of a story: Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and Faulkner. The writer I have probably reread most is Faulkner. I discovered him in my first year of university, in 1953, in Lima, and since then I have never ceased to be amazed by the complexity and subtlety that his stories attain thanks to the way he organizes the points of view, the movement of the narrator, the creation of his own literary time, and also, of course, thanks to that enveloping style of extraordinary sensoriality that makes the changes in atmosphere and landscape in which the stories illuminate, or blur, or vanish, creating expectation, uncertainty, and always keeping readers in a kind of trance. Faulkner is perhaps the writer who taught me most about the type of novelist I wanted to be and the type of novels I wanted to write.

From your position with respect to Cuba and Hugo Chávez, and later as a candidate for president of Peru, you have always defended individual freedoms. What’s your perspective on the political and social panorama since 1993, when you wrote El pez en la agua? Has there been an erosion of freedoms or have they been lost?

I think all the opinions I expressed in El pez en la agua I still maintain. I might clarify some details and add others regarding phenomena like Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia that did not exist when I wrote down those memories. When I began writing, the idea was widespread that a writer had, in addition to an artistic and intellectual responsibility, a civic responsibility and should participate in the political debate regarding the problems of the time. I learned this reading Sartre, about whom my opinion has greatly changed, but I have always shared his idea that writers should engage in expressing their opinions about politics and social problems. I don’t believe writers should exempt themselves from such participation, just like I don’t believe any other citizen should either. If we want things to improve in our society, we must be involved in political life and writers can contribute to this activity without renouncing their own vocation. In the dominion of the word, for example, political language tends to be clichéd, full of the commonplace, a disseminator of slogans and mottos more than ideas. A writer can give back to politics language that is clean, fresh, that expresses concepts, ideas and not just sensations and clichés. On the other hand, a writer can add imagination and inventiveness to a world that, owing to the advance of specialization, is becoming increasingly routine and predictable, deprived of idealism and creativity. If we want democracy to survive and not to drown in dictators or in total mediocrity, it’s indispensable for us to inject imagination and novelty into democratic life. In this way writers can provide a service to the political life of nations.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although the video version isn’t available yet, the full transcript of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech is now available online. Below is the opening, and if you’re interested in reading a Vargas Llosa book because of this, I’d highly highly highly recommend Conversations in the Cathedral. Absolutely breathtaking in scope, emotion, and innovative literary techniques.

On with the speech:

“In Praise of Reading and Fiction”

I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space and allowing me to travel with Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea, fight with d’Artagnan, Athos, Portos, and Aramis against the intrigues threatening the Queen in the days of the secretive Richelieu, or stumble through the sewers of Paris, transformed into Jean Valjean carrying Marius’s inert body on my back.

Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.

I wish my mother were here, a woman who was moved to tears reading the poems of Amado Nervo and Pablo Neruda, and Grandfather Pedro too, with his large nose and gleaming bald head, who celebrated my verses, and Uncle Lucho, who urged me so energetically to throw myself body and soul into writing even though literature, in that time and place, compensated its devotees so badly. Throughout my life I have had people like that at my side, people who loved and encouraged me and infected me with their faith when I had doubts. Thanks to them, and certainly to my obstinacy and some luck, I have been able to devote most of my time to the passion, the vice, the marvel of writing, creating a parallel life where we can take refuge against adversity, one that makes the extraordinary natural and the natural extraordinary, that dissipates chaos, beautifies ugliness, eternalizes the moment, and turns death into a passing spectacle.

Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

If in this address I were to summon all the writers to whom I owe a few things or a great deal, their shadows would plunge us into darkness. They are innumerable. In addition to revealing the secrets of the storytelling craft, they obliged me to explore the bottomless depths of humanity, admire its heroic deeds, and feel horror at its savagery. They were my most obliging friends, the ones who vitalized my calling and in whose books I discovered that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances, that living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.

Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.

Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. When Emma Bovary swallows arsenic, Anna Karenina throws herself in front of the train, and Julien Sorel climbs to the scaffold, and when, in “El sur,” the urban doctor Juan Dahlmann walks out of that tavern on the pampa to face a thug’s knife, or we realize that all the residents of Comala, Pedro Páramo’s village, are dead, the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas. Literature creates a fraternity within human diversity and eclipses the frontiers erected among men and women by ignorance, ideologies, religions, languages, and stupidity.

Since every period has its horrors, ours is the age of fanatics, of suicide terrorists, an ancient species convinced that by killing they earn heaven, that the blood of innocents washes away collective affronts, corrects injustices, and imposes truth on false beliefs. Every day, all over the world, countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess absolute truths. With the collapse of totalitarian empires, we believed that living together, peace, pluralism, and human rights would gain the ascendancy and the world would leave behind holocausts, genocides, invasions, and wars of extermination. None of that has occurred. New forms of barbarism flourish, incited by fanaticism, and with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we cannot overlook the fact that any small faction of crazed redeemers may one day provoke a nuclear cataclysm. We have to thwart them, confront them, and defeat them. There aren’t many, although the tumult of their crimes resounds all over the planet and the nightmares they provoke overwhelm us with dread. We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to snatch away the freedom we have been acquiring over the long course of civilization. Let us defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, coexistence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternation in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us closer – though we will never attain it – to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it. By confronting homicidal fanatics we defend our right to dream and to make our dreams reality. . . .

Read the full text by clicking here.

16 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As any and all long-time (or probably even short-time) readers of Three Percent know, we pick on publisher websites quite a bit. (See for instance, any and every post about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

Most often they deserve it for many of the same reasons that we like to make fun of book ads. I’m totally ripping off Richard Nash here, but if every company advertised its products the way book publishers do—a picture of the product with three quotes saying how great it is—capitalism would’ve crumbled long ago.

And just look at this mess. All the “You Might Also Like . . .” crap is annoying at best, especially since it’s followed at the bottom by “New Books Similar to This One.” And where’s the info about the book (ISBN, price, page count)? Near the bottom of the listing in all italics. You’d never know it, but if you click on the image of the book cover, you get to read an excerpt! And what’s up with all the ads and “Hot@Harper” shit? My six-year-old daughter has better aesthetic sense than the people who designed this.

BUT, occasionally a corporate press gets it right. Like with FSG’s Work in Progress monthly newsletter/website. (Granted, this is apples to oranges in comparing to Harper’s trainwreck, but I’m willing to bet Harper’s monthly promo emails are as aesthetically confused.) Not only is this site elegant, it looks like something you’d want to read, and the marketing aspects of it are subdued and enhanced with interesting content. Such as this conversation between Marion Duvert and Richard Howard on Roland Barthes (Barthes? Can’t imagine another “big” publisher referencing him—AND Samuel Beckett—in their monthly promo-newsletter):

So he called me just to say hello, and say that he would like to come to New York, and could I show him around a little bit because he had never been here.

I said certainly, and that I looked forward to it very much. He arrived. He had the first copy of, I think, Mythologies in print. The first day was very proper and careful. But we got along very well. It was apparent that he had made the right choice, and that we were going to be friends. I suppose that means I met the man first. But he came carrying a book, and I think he knew that I was a translator; and he wanted me to see it. I did translate right away three or four of those pieces that were published in various periodicals here. That was the beginning.

I don’t think he ever again read any of my translations [of him]. I don’t think he had any . . . it isn’t that he didn’t have interest. He would say that he didn’t know English well enough to have it make any difference; it was just his satisfaction that they were in English. At the beginning I think there was some interest in that fact, but I never heard from him again on that subject.

I would ask him questions. I remember calling him up once and saying that he had referred to somebody inadequately or incorrectly, as I just knew. Did he want me to silently correct the mistake? He said, “Oh, of course. Do whatever you want. I have no idea.” And then there was some question of some king or even Egyptian pharaoh, and he said, “Well, make it up. Make it up. I don’t remember the case myself. If it’s not correct in the French text, just make up something.” He had decided that I was trustworthy, and he could rely on me to take care of such things, and there was no further discussion about it. He was not an anxious author about his translations.

This month’s issue also includes interviews with Edith Grossman and Natasha Wimmer on Mario Vargas Llosa, both of which are pretty interesting:

Chapman: You’ve translated a number of García Márquez’s novels—another Latin American Nobel laureate—who is lionized as much for his influence as for his writing. Do you also see the Vargas Llosa imprimatur in younger writers?

Grossman: I can’t really answer that question except in the broadest terms. Vargas Llosa’s influence may lie in the intertwining of the personal and the political. García Márquez’s influence is more stylistic, I think: the intertwining of fantasy and reality, perhaps. They both owe a great debt to William Faulkner and, most of all, to Miguel de Cervantes. On the other hand, the impact of the Latin American Boom on young writers everywhere was enormous, and I don’t think Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie, for example, would write the same way without that older generation of Latin American writers.

Chapman: Speaking of the next generation, what was your reaction to Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” list?

Grossman: I was very happy that Granta devoted an issue to young Spanish-language writers. In fact, I translated one of the stories, by a Peruvian, Santiago Roncagliolo. He’s a wonderful writer—I did a novel of his, Red April, a couple of years ago.

Kudos to you, FSG, for figuring out this interwebs thing and how 21st-century digital marketing can work. If you’re interested, you can subscribe here.

1 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the BOA Editions blog there’s a guest post from Idra Novey—poet and translator of The Clean Shirt of It by Paulo Henriques Britto—about “bad girls” and translation:

Whenever this happens, I think of an interview I read a few years ago in the New York Times Magazine with the writer Mario Vargos Llosa about his novel The Bad Girl. In the interview, Vargos Llosa explains that he made his main character a translator to explain the man’s lack of personality and why he’d need to go groveling after the Bad Girl. A translator, according to Vargos Llosa, is an inhibited “intermediary” whose life is “curtailed” and “mediocre.”

My question after reading this was how many translators does Vargas Llosa actually know?

In the poetry world, I’ve found translators usually are the bad girls—the poets most likely to put themselves in dodgy situations in other languages and enjoy it. To disappear for years into other cultures and live in situations that would make their parents cringe but that also leaves them aware of the world in a way that makes them live, think, and take risks they never would have otherwise.

Exactly. So who wants to join ALTA now?

7 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Taking advantage of Vargas Llosa being in NYC for the PEN World Voices Festival:

The Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, Kareen Rispal, conferred the insignia of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa yesterday in a ceremony in New York. In accepting the honor, Mr. Vargas Llosa described himself as deeply indebted to French literature and culture. As a 21-year-old in 1968, Mr. Vargas Llosa recalled, he won a literary contest, the prize of which was a two-week trip to Paris. He was awed by the city, but was even more startled to discover that there was another celebrity staying in his hotel: Miss France 1968. He danced with her. “This is an experience that marks you for the rest of your life,” the writer said of his first taste of Paris.

22 January 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The Guardian has a ‘digested read’ of Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl:

The most notable event of the summer of 1950 was the arrival in Miraflores of two flamboyant Chilean sisters. I was just 15 and fell in love with the older one, Lily, like a calf. We were inseparable; we held hands, though she teased me with her kisses. “Never on the lips, Ricardito.” Then she disappeared without saying goodbye. The rumour was that she wasn’t an exotic Chilean; she was a Peruvian from the slums. Yet I never forgot her.

3 January 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

PEN announced the first event of the 2008 PEN World Voices Festival. There isn’t any news about other participants, or events, yet, but we’ll keep you posted.

The Three Musketeers Reunited:
Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa

When: Friday, May 2
bq. Where: 92nd St. Y: New York City
bq. What time: 7:30 p.m.

PEN is excited to make the first event announcement of the 2008 World Voices Festival. The event will feature three literary heavyweights appearing at the 92nd Street Y for a special repeat performance. On October 10, 1995, London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted a historic night of readings by three of the world’s most distinguished writers: Umberto Eco from Italy, British-Indian Salman Rushdie, and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru. At dinner afterwards, Eco anointed the trio as The Three Musketeers. Now, twelve years later, the PEN World Voices Festival, in collaboration with the Poetry Center, is proud to present The Three Musketeers together again for one unforgettable evening.

The Three Musketeers Reunited will take place on May 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

8 October 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

The New York Times Magazine has an interview with Mario Vargas Llosa about his new book, The Bad Girl.

19 September 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Mario Vargas Llosa has been given another honorary degree, this time from the University of Reims Champagne-Ardennes.

L‘écrivain hispano-péruvien Mario Vargas Llosa a été nommé mercredi docteur honoris causa de l’Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne, qui accueille depuis lundi et jusqu‘à jeudi un colloque international sur l’auteur né à Lima, a constaté un photographe de l’AFP.

Roughly translated: Vargas Llosa is getting an honorary degree following an international colloquim (which ends tomorrow) on his work.

For the curious, here is the schedule for the colloquim.

6 September 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Immediately following an exciting tidbit about Whoopi Goldberg and The View, IHT mentions Mario Vargas Llosa:

Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the Spanish-speaking world’s most acclaimed writers, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of La Rioja in northern Spain. Vargas Llosa, 71, has written more than 30 novels, plays and essays, including “Conversation in the Cathedral,” “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” and “The Green House.”

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