This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)
My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?
War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.
Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:
Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?
For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.
I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.
Rather than devolve into posting clickbait featuring cats, penguins, hedgehogs, corgis, and books, like other BuzzHole sites, I’m going hard for the rest of the week, starting with seven books by women in translation.
The gender disparity in terms of women in translation has been fairly well documented—see the Women in Translation tumblr and all of the work Meytal Radzinski has been doing—but it’s worth reiterating some of the primary numbers.
Using our own Translation Database, I calculated that between 2008 and 2014 only 26.6% of all the works of fiction and poetry published in translation were written by women. That’s pretty damn appalling.
I still might be missing some 2015 titles, but at this moment, I have logged in 552 original works of fiction and poetry in translation, 165 written by women. I don’t think this is a reason to celebrate, but at 29.9%, that is a slight uptick over the average . . .
Leaving off all of the books by women that I included on my previous lists (post listing all lists is forthcoming), and ones that I’m planning on including in the future (this will never end!), here are seven books by women from 2015 that are worth reading.
Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel (Open Letter)
Given that this is the first Open Letter book I’ve included on these lists, I hope everyone reading this can acknowledge that I’m doing my best to include as many different presses, writers, translators as possible, and not just promoting the mind-blowingly amazing books that we’ve been bringing out.
This is Naja’s first novel and her second book to be translated into English. (The first, Baboon, translated by Denise Newman, won the PEN Translation Prize last year.) It’s a book I considered including on the “noir” list that’s forthcoming, but with all the competition for that—do you have any idea how many crime titles are published every year?—I thought it would make more sense to include her here.
Rock, Paper, Scissors centers around Thomas, a stationery-store owner whose dad dies in prison. Going through some of his belongings, Thomas discovers a mysterious package that could radically change his family’s fortunes. But as the book develops, more and more awful things start happening to him . . .
You can find out more about Naja by reading this interview with Mieke Chew in Bomb.
_The Weight of Things _ by Marianne Fritz, translated from the Germany by Adrian Nathan West (Dorothy Project)
(What’s below appeared verbatim in an earlier post, but I have nothing new to add.)
This may well be the most intriguing jacket copy I’ve read in a while.
The Weight of Things is the first book, and the first translated book, and possibly the only translatable book by Austrian writer Marianne Fritz (1948–2007). For after winning acclaim with this novel—awarded the Robert Walser Prize in 1978—she embarked on a 10,000-page literary project called “The Fortress,” creating over her lifetime elaborate, colorful diagrams and typescripts so complicated that her publisher had to print them straight from her original documents. A project as brilliant as it is ambitious and as bizarre as it is brilliant, it earned her cult status, comparisons to James Joyce no less than Henry Darger, and admirers including Elfriede Jelinek and W. G. Sebald.
My knee-jerk reaction when I see something referred to as “untranslatable” is to cry Nonsense! and bust out all sort of practical versus theoretical reasons why everything’s translatable, just maybe not in the way the speaker has in mind.
But then I Googled Marianne Fritz’s later works and found this:
Yep. That. Amazing.
The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum)
We have a full review of this forthcoming, so I won’t say too much here. Basically this is a genre-bending novel about what happens when rumors spread that the Russian government is going to erect a wall to block off the Caucasus republics from the rest of the country. (Shades of Trump!) It’s also one of the only (the only?) book from Dagestan to be published in English translation.
Not too many months ago, I listened to the audiobook recording of Masha Gessen’s The Brothers about the Boston Bombers. It also involves a lot about Dagestan and I totally fell in love with the way the reader pronounced “Makhachkala.” Weirdly, that got me interested in this book . . . Sometimes the way we find things to read is so random.
Hot Sur by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Ernest Mestre-Reed (AmazonCrossing)
I just got a copy of this and hope to read it over the holiday break. (Although I’ll probably spend most of my vacation reading out 2016 titles and prepping for my world lit class . . . sigh. There’s just not enough time for pleasure reading anymore.) Anyway, Restrepo is one of those “AmazonCrossing coups” that I’ve mentioned in past articles and interviews. Sure, a lot of what Amazon does are genre books, romances, thrillers, etc., but they also do a handful of big name literary authors who have been overlooked by more established publishers. Such as Restrepo.
Hot Sur is a more recent novel that sounds dark and edgy:
María Paz is a young Latin American woman who, like many others, has come to America chasing a dream. When she is accused of murdering her husband and sentenced to life behind bars, she must struggle to keep hope alive as she works to prove her innocence. But the dangers of prison are not her only obstacles: gaining freedom would mean facing an even greater horror lying in wait outside the prison gates, one that will stop at nothing to get her back.
This is one of those titles that I have a feeling certain booksellers would be rallying around had it come out from someone else. Which makes me feel bad for the book.
War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Open Letter)
This book made Jeff VanderMeer’s list of his favorite books of 2015 and since I can’t resist the idea of having lists inside of lists (inside of lists inside of . . . ), I’m just going to quote from his write up:
War, So Much War, the latest translation of her work following volumes of short stories and the darkly sublime novel Death in Spring, is a phantasmagorical journey through a landscape of war. People disappear into the sea. Cat men made out of broken parts try to make their way in the world. A kind of anti-picturesque episodic adventure, the novel makes sense of war through the nonreal, makes us understand that in the worst circumstances the surreal is the every-day as well as the place people escape to because there is nowhere else to hide.
This book has been getting some great year-end play from booksellers and other critics. As one of my all-time favorite writers, I couldn’t be happier. Go Rodoreda! (Now if only I could find a way to learn more about Catalan culture . . . like by attending the Barcelona-Arsenal Champions League match in mid-March at Camp Nou . . . Maybe I should start a “gofundme” for this! “Send me to see some fútbol, I’ll bring back some Catalan lit!”)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich (FSG)
I really like when Jonathan Sturgeon is given the space to write longer pieces about books for Flavorwire. He’s a very insightful, thoughtful, well-read critic, as can be evidenced in this piece about Ulitskaya’s latest:
Because the novel is flat and fast, it’s difficult to describe the next several hundred pages. I’d rather given you an example of how it reads. But first I will say that it does not just dutifully work out the fates of our three young men, their sexualities, marriages, educations, occupations, travels, interpersonal struggles, and deaths; rather, it undutifully resolves these things. The plot meanders. The narrator ice skates along the novel’s surface. And as the book expands, it does become a big (green) tent, one that deals the fates of assorted minor characters, of what the narrator bafflingly calls “C-list extras.” The problem, though, is that any extra would be thrilled to be on the C-list; accordingly, the novel’s minor characters are always clambering in the limelight. (“Vera Samuilovna was crazy about endocrinology,” for instance.) Sometimes they ruin the shot.
Still, the book is often a joy to read. It is, if you will, crack. (Reminder: crack is bad for you.) But at least it is book crack and not TV crack. By this I do not mean that books are better than TV, although this is something I do believe. (I write about books.) What I mean is that The Big Green Tent, unlike some other big works of realism published this year, does not rely too much on TV tropes. Instead, it wins the reader’s attention with narrative art and (sometimes) ingenious language.
I considered including this in my spring class, but asking students to read a 570-page book in a week is begging for a student rebellion.
The Country Road by Regina Ullmann, translated from the German by Kurt Beals (New Directions)
I don’t remember seeing a lot of coverage for this book when it first came out, which is both strange and disappointing. Her writing is weird in that way that a lot of literary readers and reviewers seem to enjoy. Robert Musil called her a “genius.” There are blurbs on the book jacket by Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse. Kurt Beals won a PEN Heim Translation Award for this. And here’s the opening of the title story:
Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be int he way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with an almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me . . . The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve it of its bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.
So go forth and read women in translation!
There’s been a lot of talk about the revival of interest in long-form non-fiction thanks to the Internet and apps and what not. There’s longform.org, givemesomethingtoread.com, and, more to the electronic point, Kindle Singles.
Now, you could argue that this isn’t really a revival, but rather an embracing of a distribution system for journalism more in line with our times than the printing of magazines or newspaper or books on current affairs.
Regardless, in our Age of Apps, it seems like this revived interest could expand to short stories as well. Rather than buying a journal with a ton of short stories (many of which you probably won’t like), or reading the New Yorker, single-story delivery systems are kind of perfect. Witness the astounding success of One Story.
All of this is a long ramble to introducing Storyville, an iEverything app that provides a new story every week from around the world. It’s a very pretty app, and perfect for giving you something new to read on a regular basis that is interesting, enjoyable, and substantial (but not overwhelming).
One self-serving reason I’m mentioning this now is because Merce Rodoreda’s “Guinea Fowls” (available in her Selected Stories) is this week’s featured story.
Translator Martha Tennent provided a very interesting introduction to this story, which you can read here.
As a translator, I search for a concept of style that will help formulate a strategy for rendering the work into English. It is always difficult to translate from Catalan, for we lack in English a sense of the literary and cultural traditions that have produced Catalan literature, something that does not occur, for example, with French. When translating Rodoreda’s last, posthumous novel, Death in Spring—a surrealist novel that depicts a mythical world where ritual violence is part of the village’s daily life—I sought analogies in English that would help the Anglophone reader interpret the text. I found inspiration in Angela Carter’s Gothic tales and in the rich vocabulary and nature images of D.H. Lawrence. I developed a lexicon based on these writers and attempted to insert expressions garnered from these parallel genres in the English literary tradition at strategic points in my translation.
I worked in a similar fashion when translating the collection of short stories by Rodoreda. Her short narratives reflect at times a Virginia Woolf type of stream of consciousness, but more often a dramatic realism, even a laconic minimalism, seen in the styles of Hemingway or Raymond Carver, writers who helped me develop a style for the story “Guinea Fowl,” where the stark realism of a brutal market scene is glimpsed through the eyes of a young boy. The precision of observation and ear for capturing the rhythm of the spoken language that Mercè Rodoreda shows in much of her writing is clearly evident in “Guinea Fowl.”
Click here to download the Storyville app and to read Rodoreda’s awesome story . . . .
(One last digression: It’s amazing that last week Rodoreda’s Death in Spring was on NPR, and this week her story is being featured in Storyville. She was an incredible figure and I’m really glad Open Letter has been able to make her work available to a much wider group of readers. And hopefully this sort of “Rodoreda rediscovery” will go on for years and years and years.)
Over at NPR, Jesmyn Ward has a really nice write-up of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring:
When a friend gave me Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, he told me it would blow my mind. Ten pages in, I doubted his claim.
The book begins when the narrator, a 14-year-old boy from a small mountain village, slips into a cold, sometimes savage river to escape a bee. His swim is interspersed with descriptions of his isolated community, with its pink painted homes and wisteria vines that “over the years, upwrenched houses.”
Rodoreda’s prose, even in translation, is bold and beautiful, but structured into short chapters and flashbacks. The effect is impressionistic, truncated and frustrating. I couldn’t orient myself in the narrative.
And then I surrendered.
Sure, I’m 125% biased, but Death in Spring is damn amazing. Rodoreda is one of the greats of the twentieth century. This novel, Time of the Doves, her Selected Fiction are all incredible.
But I’m going to digress for a moment and hate all over the NPR commenters on this post.
When this first went up, three separate people wrote in to complain that there was no “SPOILER ALERT”:
It would be really good if you posted a SPOILER ALERT. I unwittingly read something about the novel that probably should have been read only in the novel. I continued to read, thinking that would be the last spoiler, but it wasn’t. I only got past learning that his father was killed in a very unusual way when it appeared I was going to get more details from the book. I doubt you can do a rewrite but can you post a spoiler alert~? :o] Thanks~!
OK, so now, there is a “SPOILER ALERT” warning at the top of the page, but seriously, WTF? Some readers can be so god damn annoying. Yeah, the narrator’s dad dies, “in a very unusual way.” On page 15. And even if you only read books for the simple plot points (hey—you should check out this John Locke guy, he’s probably right up your alley), then wouldn’t it really be spoiled if you knew the unusual way in which he was killed? Whatever. These people piss me off.
And I know that’s wrong, and I should feel guilty about it, but they reduce books to the most basic of components and try and strangle actual conversation about literature because if you happen to mention anything, you’ve “ruined the surprise.” GAARRRRGGGGHHHH!
Totally biased, but I think this is one of our strongest seasons yet, what with Zone, the new Bragi Olafsson novel, the first of a million or so Juan Jose Saer books (one of my absolute favorites! If you can’t wait for our book, check out The Event from Serpent’s Tail—absolutely incredible), and our first poetry title . . . You can download a pdf of the catalog by clicking the link above, but here are links to each of the books, along with their respective copy:
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)
It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.
One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.
Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.
Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)
Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.
Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .
One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.
The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia)
Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).
The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Iceland)
Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.
Then there’s Sturla’s new overcoat, the first expensive item of clothing he has ever purchased, which causes him no end of trouble. And the article he wrote for a literary journal, which points out the stupidity of literary festivals and declares the end of his career as a poet. Sturla has a lot to deal with, and that’s not counting his estranged wife and their five children, nor the increasingly bizarre experiences and characters he’s forced to confront at the festival in Vilnius . . .
Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador is a quirky novel that’s filled with insightful and wry observations about aging, family, love, and the mysteries of the hazelnut.
Lodgings by Andrzej Sosnowski. Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. (Poland)
Lodgings is the first representative selection of Sosnowski’s work available in English. Spanning his entire career, from the publication of Life in Korea in 1992 to his newest poems, this is a book whose approach to language, literature, and the representation of experience is simultaneously resonant and strange—a cocktail party where lowlifes and sophisticates hobnob with French theorists and British glam rockers, unsettling us with the hard accuracy of their pronouncements.
One of the foremost Polish poets of his generation, Andrzej Sosnowski’s work demonstrates a dazzling range of influences and echoes, from Ronald Firbank and Raymond Roussel to John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop. Also an influential editor and critic, he has received most of the literary honors available to poets in Poland, including the prestigious Silesius Prize.
The other day, I had a really interesting conversation with David Del Vecchio and Lewis Manalo of Idlewild Books about covers for literature in translation. All the BTBA longlist titles are on display at Idlewild (rock on!) and it’s really interesting to take these all in at once.
One of the things David pointed out was just how dark all these books were. (Sidenote: I REALLY HOPE that one day he’ll write a long piece for us about all of his cover observations—all of us publishers could learn a ton from listening to a bookseller like David. I mean, we’ve seen Sessalee at B&N influence the look of more commercial fiction—pictures of hair anyone?—so it’s only cool that a hip, indie bookstore could help shape the look of translated titles.) I hadn’t really thought about the look of all these titles together—see, I don’t judge a book by its . . . actually, yes I do, we all do—but seriously, look at The Ninth, The Skating Rink, Confessions of Noa Weber, and, cough, Death in Spring, and the impression you get is that all of these books are bleak, dark, somewhat depressing, etc.
Personally, I think the Death in Spring cover kicks some serious design ass, but I can see how someone looking at a tree made of various bones might get the impression that the book is a bit morbid . . . But well, you know, in contrast to some of the other BTBA titles that might misrepresent (Memories of the Future looks awful mechanistic for such an insanely funny book), this one is pretty spot-fucking-on. The book opens with the narrator’s father trying to bury himself in a tree in order to avoid the village’s traditional death ritual . . . His attempt fails in brutal, disturbing fashion:
They started to shout. They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his feet. Don’t kill him before he has been filled. They pried his mouth partially open, and the cement man began to fill it. First with watery cement so it would slide far down inside him, then with thick cement. When he was well cemented, they stood him up and put him back inside the tree. They replaced the cross and left to prepare the Festa.
Welcome to Merce Rodoreda’s nightmare world.
To fans of her earlier works—especially The Time of the Doves, this is shocking and totally unexpected. But it does sort of fit an evolution of Rodoreda’s work. Doves is a more conventional story of a woman’s loves and losses during the time of the Spanish Civil War. It’s gorgeous and lush, and has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s writing. But then there’s A Broken Mirror, which chronicles the dissolution of a family in three distinct sections, each written with a different tone and sensibility, starting with a more Victorian feel, then turning modernist, and ending with a very fractured, post-modern section. And then comes Death in Spring.
Death in Spring is a very surreal, violent (even houses are “upwrenched”) novel that traces the life of a young boy, through whose eyes we witness the terrifying and incomprehensible rituals that shape life in the village. In addition to the cement-pouring ritual (which is freaky) and the burying people inside of trees bit, there’s also the annual “trip down the river,” in which one unlucky person has to float through the river running under the village to clear out any rocks blocking the water’s passage . . .
The book can be interpreted in several ways—as a metaphor for life under Franco, as a creepy bildungsroman, so on—but one constant is the beauty of Rodoreda’s prose, especially as she struggles to convey something that’s almost beyond words. (To be honest: I’m stealing some of the comments Erica Mena made about this book and all of the times “language fails” in the book.) Personally, I think this is one of the most important books Open Letter has published so far. I can envision scholars and readers debating this a hundred years from now—and studying Martha Tennent’s inventive translation.
So I’ll leave off with another passage that’s beautifully sad:
When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river. Those who died in the water were returned to the water. The river carried them away and nothing was ever known of them again. But at night, at the spot where the bodies were thrown into the water, a shadow could be seen. Not every night. Not today or tomorrow, but on certain nights a shadow trembled. They said the shadow of the dead returned to the place where the man was born. They said that to die was to merge with the shadow. That summer, the shadow of the boy was clearly distinguishable. It was unmistakably him because he had been separated from one of his arms, and the shadow had but one arm. Struggling against the current, the shadow—which was only will, not body or voice—attempted to slip beneath the village. And as the shadow struggled, the prisoner neighed.
Natasha Wimmer has an interesting piece on Catalan author Merce Rodoreda. It’s great introduction to Rodoreda—considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of all time—even if Wimmer does prefer The Time of the Doves (available from Graywolf) to Death in Spring (which we brought out last year and was masterfully translated by Martha Tennent).
I can’t remember the first time I read Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves. It might have been when I was 13, living with my family in the high-rise suburbs of Madrid. It might have been when I was 17, back in Madrid with my mother for a few weeks in a sweltering rented room. Or it might have been when I was 19, on my own in the city, sharing an apartment near the train station with four South American girls. In any case, I read it in Spanish, under the title La plaza del diamante (the original Catalan title is La plaça del diamant). And I read it at about the same time as I read Nada, by Carmen Laforet. These were the first serious books I read in Spanish, and I’ve never forgotten them.
Certainly, few books have been as gorgeously sad. On a personal list of misery-inducing favorites including Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, The Time of the Doves ranks near the top. Set in Barcelona around the time of the Spanish Civil War, it’s tragic simply as a function of its setting, but Rodoreda plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability. This condition will be familiar to readers of Rhys’s novels, to which Rodoreda’s novels bear a certain resemblance. Rodoreda’s women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty. [. . .]
For those who’ve only read The Time of the Doves, Death in Spring will come as a surprise. In it, Rodoreda works in an entirely different register, heavily symbolic and fable-like. Signs of this tendency are visible in a number of her short stories, some of which are collected in My Christina and Other Stories. In this collection, Rodoreda’s full range of expression is on display, from the almost banal realism of a later novel, A Broken Mirror, through the exquisite impressionism of The Time of the Doves and Camellia Street, to the garish symbolism of Death in Spring. In Rodoreda’s more symbolic fictions, nature comes to the fore and humans mimic animals or morph into them, as in the short story “The Salamander,” in which a woman who sleeps with a married man is burned to death and turns into a salamander, returning to live under her lover’s bed.
The use of symbolism is a form of sublimation, in the same way that the ruthless elision and economy of Rodoreda’s writing in The Time of the Doves is a form of sublimation. In both cases, Rodoreda heightens and transforms the brutal reality of existence in a world of endless war. The artfulness of the latter method, however, stands in contrast to the often garbled mythmaking of some of the short stories and Death in Spring. Like “The Salamander,” Death in Spring is set in a village that’s part medieval, part contemporary and part infernal. A river runs beneath it, through a rocky passage, and every year one man must swim it to make sure the village isn’t about to be washed away. Most emerge near death, their faces torn by the rocks, but even this is benign compared with the village’s rituals of death, in which living villagers are stuffed full of pink cement and entombed upright in trees.
The National Endowment for the Arts just announced its 2010 winners of the Literature Fellowships for Translation Projects. And there’s a few Open Letter connections this year.
First, Charlotte Mandell won a grant to translate Mathias Enard’s Zone (“The narrative unfolds during a train journey from Milan to Rome, and interweaves the narrator’s experiences in the war in Yugoslavia with other stories of war — from the Trojan War to World War II to present-day clashes.”), which we’ll be publishing next year.
And two Open Letter alumna won this year too: Ellen Elias-Bursac, who translated Nobody’s Home for us, won a grant to translate the first modern Croatian novel; and Martha Tennent, who translated Death in Spring, won a grant to translate some of Mercè Rodoreda’s short stories.
Congratulations to everyone who won. (And now to send off some emails! Oh Martha…)
This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:
In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.
Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:
From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.
Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:
Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.
What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.
Catalan Days — a month-long festival celebrating the arts, food, and literature of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands — really got underway on Saturday with a performance by Jessica Lange of Merce Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves.
This event was arranged in part to celebrate our release of Death in Spring, Rodoreda’s final novel, which she spent decades on, and which was left unfinished. (Well, sort of. The book ends the only way it can—the “unfinished” nature of the manuscript seems to be more editing-based than plot-based.) Martha Tennent was on hand to introduce her translation of Death in Spring and Rodoreda in general. Martha’s a great translator and in fact, she translated the abridged version of Time of the Doves that Jessica Lange performed. (The novel is actually La Placa del Diamante and the “doves” in the title are actually pigeons—stinky, smelly pigeons—which is how Martha translated it. That said, “The Time of the Pigeons” isn’t really a selling title . . .)
Jessica Lange was pretty amazing. Her reading of the novel lasted almost two hours, encapsulating the whole book, from the narrator’s memories of the festival where she met her future husband (he convinces her to leave her fiance for him), through their early years as a married couple and her fairly submissive role in the relationship, to the Civil War years when Quimet goes off to fight and Natalia almost kills her children to end their suffering, through the marriage of her daughter. (Not to give too much away. Although it’s not like the plot of this book is really what matters. Rodoreda’s beautiful prose and compelling characters are the real draws.)
The book can be pretty intense, and when Jessica Lange broke into tears on stage, she really ramped up the emotional content of the novel and had everyone sucked into Rodoreda’s world. Everyone I talked to afterward was stunned by just how incredible the performance was, but what’s really amazing—and what is the definition of “professional”—is the fact that she received the translation of the script on Wednesday . . .
Rodoreda was a remarkable writers, and as I said in my brief intro about why Open Letter decided to publish this book, she can easily be categorized as one of the great women writers—in the same league as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, etc.—but that’s actually somewhat limiting. The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, and Death in Spring are three of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and demonstrate the evolution of Rodoreda’s aesthetic and writing style. She never repeated herself, and although there are certain similarities between Time of the Doves and Death in Spring, her artistic ambitions are quite different—almost amazingly so. This constant search for a new way to tell a story is why she’s not just a great woman writer, or one of the best contemporary novels, but one of the all-time Great Writers.
With our Politics of Translation event coming up next Monday, this seems like a good time to post the video of a different event that we hosted last fall.
As part of the Reading the World Conversation Series, this “Translators’ Roundtable” brought together four literary translators—who work in a variety of languages and genres—to discuss their experiences. The conversation explored a number of different topics, from how they got started as translators, to the obstacles of retranslating classic works, to translating film scripts during the writers’ strike, etc.
In attendance were Michael Emmerich, Edward Gauvin, Marian Schwartz, and Martha Tennent. There’s a lot of brilliant discussion here—one of my favorite points coming from Michael who makes a case to those who lean on the phrase “Lost in Translation” that it is, instead, and “100% gain.”
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