30 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers Editorial Anagrama, Under This Terrible Sun is Argentine journalist-cum-novelist Carlos Busqued’s debut novel in both Spanish and now English.

I don’t read many gruesome novels, so I don’t know exactly which other books to compare this novel to, but the vibe of Under This Terrible Sun reminds me of the creeping evil that saturates the movie Se7en, and not in the least because most of the deadly sins crop up throughout Busqued’s novel in various guises. The plot of Under This Terrible Sun is comprised of a convoluted series of events, with only a few central characters around whom the action takes place, and most of the action itself is moved forward by a true old-fashioned villain, who, in the end, receives his comeuppance through a deus ex machina event that wraps up this fucked-up story of greed, sloth, and murder a little too nicely. But boy, let me tell you, the story that leads to the ending is worth reading. The first time I read it, I was disconcerted by how easily I was flying through the book, how easily my eyes and mind were gliding over the events taking place on the page, which were pretty gruesome. But then I went back through the novel a second time to prepare for this review and realized that this story had more going on than I realized at first—and that was the most stomach-churning part: our society has become so dehumanized that we’ve become immune to horrific images and reports of violence. Nothing shocks us anymore. This book didn’t shock me, and that’s the disturbing part. It should have.

The novel opens with Javier Cetarti, a shiftless loser who was fired from his job six months earlier and who was just about to run out of money and, more importantly, marijuana, when he receives a phone call from a guy named Duarte in a tiny village called Lapachito, far to the north of Cordoba, where Cetarti lives. Duarte has some bad news: Cetarti’s mother and brother had been killed by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who also killed himself as the coup de grace of the grisly bloodbath. Cetarti hardly reacts to the news, but gets in the car and makes the 600+ kilometer drive up north when Duarte tells him there is some sort of life insurance policy involved, and Cetarti has the chance to cash in:

Of all the news Duarte had given him the night before, Cetarti had been most motivated to drive to Lapachito by the news that there was a life insurance policy to collect. He had been booted out of his job six months before (lack of initiative, discouraging behavior), and he had eaten through almost all of his compensation without lifting a finger.

For a dude who sits around smoking pot all day, refusing to work, this is a pretty sweet chance, and it also forms the introduction, within the first five pages, to Cetarti’s questionable moral impulse. This lack of morality becomes one of the main themes that dominates Cetarti’s universe vividly portrayed by Busqued in Under This Terrible Sun.

Cetarti arrives in his mother’s village, a wasteland that seems like the set of a horror story come to life: the houses are sinking into the mud caused by an industrial accident, the city is literally collapsing in on itself, poisonous beetles are taking over (although Cetarti is pretty sure there are no poisonous beetles, everyone tells him the beetles he sees everywhere are poisonous), and the residents can’t be bothered to leave because they just get used to it, as Duarte tells Cetarti. Welcome to Lapachito; it may be its own layer of hell.

Duarte lets Cetarti in on the life insurance scheme he’s concocted. Turns out, Cetarti’s mom’s live-in boyfriend, Molina, took out a life insurance policy before the massacre, and Cetarti could technically lay claim to the loot. It involves some questionable dealings, greasing the palms of government officials, and it doesn’t take long before you realize Duarte is hardly an ally, he’s as shady as it gets and completely incapable of doing Good. But he’s still promising Cetarti a sizeable payday, and he supplies Cetarti with tons of good weed, so Cetarti can’t complain.

Cetarti joins Duarte to visit his mother’s house, where the killing took place, and when they open the door they meet Molina’s ex-wife, who is there cleaning everything up. Cetarti goes through his mother’s and brother’s belongings without emotion, takes a few items, including what turns out to be keys to his brother’s apartment in Cordoba. The next day, he visits Duarte at home and gets a little creeped out, but rather laconically, as is Cetarti’s style, by some of the pornography that Duarte keeps laying around his house. Along with building a fleet of intricately-detailed model airplanes that are referenced throughout the novel, and paralleled by the characters watching a series of military documentaries on TV, Duarte is in the process of digitizing a fleet of brutal VHS porno tapes he’d collected, with titles too vile to mention here. He explains his choice of this particularly violent and nasty pornography to Cetarti:

“There’s some pornography you don’t watch to jerk off, you watch it more out of curiosity about how far the human species will go . . . This is what I was telling you is interesting, to see the limits of what a person is capable of doing or letting others do to them. That old woman, I picture her getting dressed with her ass all destroyed, taking the subway, buying chocolates for her grandchildren with the money she just earned by letting them do that to her . . .”

Duarte is obsessed with seeing how far the human species will go—and not just on video. A man of action, Duarte is a vibrant character: completely evil, completely amoral, completely unsympathetic, and for all of these reasons, a fascinating character. Although he commits all sorts of extortion schemes for money, he seems far more driven by the thought of pushing human bodies to their breaking point than in receiving money for anything. Which is terrifying.

Around this time we meet his henchman, a fat, shiftless pothead named Danielito, who is the son of the deceased Molina and Molina’s ex-wife. Duarte uses Danielito’s basement to hold hostages, seeking a ransom from the victim’s family at the same time as he abuses and violates the victims. Danielito is an all-too-willing accomplice to the torture, feeding the victims, but otherwise staying out of the way and letting Duarte enact his most revolting fantasies on his victims (fortunately, only alluded to).

The point of view at this point in the novel begins to alternate between Cetarti and Danielito, Duarte is never the focal point, the narrative proceeds through Cetarti and Danielito’s THC-reddened eyes, but he is the connection between the two characters (who don’t meet until much later in the novel), and only through Duarte do the parallels between their weed-soaked lives become evident: they sit around, smoke weed, eat sometimes, and watch nature and war documentaries on TV constantly. The subjects of these documentaries (elephants in southeast Asia, giant squids, WWII) recur over and over again in both characters’ lives.

The interplay between inhuman humans and mysterious deadly creatures of land and sea forms one of the most interesting themes of the novel, which shouldn’t be surprising given the novel’s epigraph, taken from Alfred Tennyson’s “The Kraken”: “ . . . Then once by man and angels to be seen, / In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.”

In one particularly creepy scene from which the novel’s title is lifted, Danielito’s mother asks him to accompany her to another shitty village far from Lapachito in order to steal the bones of her firstborn son, who died before he was a year old and who, much to Danielito’s chagrin, is also named Daniel, and leads Danielito to fantasize about elephants he’d heard from Duarte were man-killers in southeast Asia, a theme that is first raised in conversation between Cetarti and Duarte much earlier in the novel. This particular scene is also an excellent example of Busqued’s narrative technique, and illustrates the overall vibe of the novel:

bq. He couldn’t avoid a shudder when he read, painted on the tin heart: DANIEL MOLINA 2-12-1972/10-4-1973. He looked at his mother. She was staring at the sunken earth. bq. “Poor thing, all these years under this terrible sun.” bq. He dug apprehensively. The earth was soft, but he felt no urge to speed up. He was soaked in sweat. Around the cemetery there was an island of empty land, and after a hundred meters the bush-covered mountain. He remembered the documentary about the elephants of Mal Bazaar. He imagined one of those elephants emerging from the forest. He imagined it coming towards them. A complex and powerful body that shook the earth at each step. But the elephant wouldn’t attack them, he thought. It would approach them calmly and with a certain curiosity. It would stop beside them, touching them gently with its trunk. And then it would fall to the ground. Or disappear into thin air. Or something, anything else. But it wouldn’t hurt them. “Almost every mahout is an alcoholic,” he remembered. How nice to be an alcoholic, he though, how nice to be murdered by an elephant. Something, anything else.

Cetarti eventually goes home to Cordoba and moves out of his apartment into the place where his brother had been living, accumulating massive amounts of junk (bug collections, Readers Digest, orange peels) in a strange part of town called Hugo Wast, a mysterious neighborhood where nobody owns their houses, but rather squats in them, located near the municipal slaughterhouse, which gives the area a particular smell when the wind blows in the right way. Cetarti eventually gets the money from Duarte and—to make a long story short and to glaze over Duarte doing some dastardly deeds and Danielito’s mother morphing into a very interesting and strong secondary character on whom many words could be written alone—Cetarti eventually gets wrapped up in another one of Duarte’s schemes, which leads to the rather abrupt ending (which comes about a bit too neatly for me).

As I said, I’m not one for gruesome novels, so I can assure you that this novel, despite being disturbing, is worth reading. It’s shocking and interesting in ways that literary novels rarely achieve. I mentioned Se7en above: it’s actually a pretty good comparison, the same creeping dread and inhuman elements are at play, which is actually refreshing to read in Busqued’s telling, capturing some of the more interesting morally-questionable elements of humanity that are usually only portrayed in Scandinavian (or other styles of) detective thrillers. Busqued is a good writer, sparse at times, maintaining a narrative distance from the characters’ impulses while simultaneously opening the door into some of their thoughts. His sentences are seemingly simplistic in construction, but all the while gather elements and build up to a pulse-quickening crescendo, all told via the quality work of translator, Megan McDowell (a UT-Dallas translation program alumna!).

As one of new ebook-only publisher Frisch & Co.‘s first titles, they have done an admirable job of bringing Busqued’s novel into English as part of their unique partnership with Editorial Anagrama, in which they will publish two books a year from the Spanish-language publishers in digital formats. It remains to be seen if Frisch & Co. will partner with anybody to do physical copies of these books, but either way, in any format, Under This Terrible Sun is a damn good read.

30 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Will Evans on Carlos Busqued’s Under This Terrible Sun, from e-book publisher Frisch & Co.

Will Evans—known to many as The Apprentice of Summer 2012 here at Open Letter—is the publisher behind the still-relatively-new Deep Vellum, a translated literature press deep in the heart of Texas. In addition to being fueled by unlimited amounts of caffeine and the love for world lit, Will is undeniably one of the coolest people anyone can ever meet.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers Editorial Anagrama, Under This Terrible Sun is Argentine journalist-cum-novelist Carlos Busqued’s debut novel in both Spanish and now English.

I don’t read many gruesome novels, so I don’t know exactly which other books to compare this novel to, but the vibe of Under This Terrible Sun reminds me of the creeping evil that saturates the movie Se7en, and not in the least because most of the deadly sins crop up throughout Busqued’s novel in various guises. The plot of Under This Terrible Sun is comprised of a convoluted series of events, with only a few central characters around whom the action takes place, and most of the action itself is moved forward by a true old-fashioned villain, who, in the end, receives his comeuppance through a deus ex machina event that wraps up this fucked-up story of greed, sloth, and murder a little too nicely. But boy, let me tell you, the story that leads to the ending is worth reading. The first time I read it, I was disconcerted by how easily I was flying through the book, how easily my eyes and mind were gliding over the events taking place on the page, which were pretty gruesome. But then I went back through the novel a second time to prepare for this review and realized that this story had more going on than I realized at first—and that was the most stomach-churning part: our society has become so dehumanized that we’ve become immune to horrific images and reports of violence. Nothing shocks us anymore. This book didn’t shock me, and that’s the disturbing part. It should have.

6 September 13 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter, one of the ten judges for the Best Translated Book Awards and curator of Salonica, gives her thoughts on some of the books she’s read so far this year.

School is back in swing, a war with Syria looms and the new iPhone 5s is about to take over the world. Yet, let’s not forget the simple joys in life. Like books. More specifically, books in translation. Even more specifically than that, this year’s books in translation. As we begin the slow rev to the Best Translated Book Awards short list, the judges have decided to voice their comments, appraisals, frustrations, and declarations of love for the fiction entries along the way. As a judge, I can attest to the fact that even though I know a book may not be the strongest contender for the long or short list, I still can fall madly, deeply and begrudgingly in intellectual lust with it.

This brings me to my impressions of a few of the entries I’ve read so far that have made me think, intrigued me or challenged me to understand why the novel is so compelling even though the main character thoroughly disgusts me. The first novel I want to recommend is Marc Auge’s No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction.

Ethnofiction blends truth and fiction (doesn’t all fiction?) that asks the reader to not necessarily identify with the main characters in the novel, but rather to reflect on the conditions in which she exists. This is a genre that began in film and is making it’s way into the literary vernacular, especially in France and England. Also known as docufiction or ethnography, it aims to take the viewer or reader into the world of a marginalized part of society and present that reality through the eyes of a main character. In Auge’s slim novel,translated by Chris Turner, he chooses to focus on homelessness through the life of the main character, Henri. Divorce, retired and struggling financially besides receiving a small pension, he sells all his belongings, gives up his studio apartment and moves into his Mercedes(pretty posh for a homeless guy).

Through diary entries, we learn of his nomadic life around his neighborhood: where he moves in car to avoid tickets, the cafe he visits to sit during the day and evening, and his homeless colleague who lives on the pavement near his parking space. As he gradually disengages from society and responsibility, the loneliness and alienation from mainstream society become contrastingly overwhelming but comfortable. At the end of the novel, he is forced to make a choice about whether he will decide to participate in society as he once had or to continue as homeless. What makes this so engaging is that even though we are drawn into the desperation of homelessness and our dismissal of the homeless, we still identify with the main character because it so well written.

I really enjoyed this book because as quick it was to read, Henri stuck with as well as the questions Auge raised. As far as the narrator, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another favorite of mine, The Waitress Was New about a lonely unemployed bartender on the outskirts of Paris. The same honest and touching voice. It also had elements of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a memoir, but began as a piece of investigative reporting and doesn’t feel to far off from ethnofiction.

The second novel I’d recommend is another short one, but no less intriguing. Scissors by Stephane Michaka is actually almost three times as long as No Fixed Abode, but reads just as quickly.

Michaka recreates the last ten years of Raymond Carver’s life through alternating voices – Douglas, his editor (okay, Gordon Lish), Marianne, his ex-wife and Joanne, his new poetess-lover and his own. There are fictionalized excerpts of Carver stories that add to the believability of this imagined decade. The fraught relationship between Douglas and Ray eventually leads to a power struggle between who is actually responsible for Carver’s success. No doubt they are inextricable. What makes this books so strong is that essentially Michaka gets to the kernel of the creative process from beginning to end including the pitfalls of alcoholism, passivity, ego and the trials of those who support a creative personality. The book feels very American because the subject is Carver whose stamp on the minimalist style pushed it to the front of acceptable literary styles. This American feel is due equally to the writer and the translator, John Cullen. Carver, like any artist American or not, struggled and at the end we see it not as Raymond Carver struggling, but the possible battles that lie in waiting for any creative pursuit.

The last novel is from a new ebook publisher that I’m really excited about, Frisch and Co.. Among other their new titles is Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated by Megan McDowell, a brutal, downbeat novel full of weed, violence, carcasses and squid.

Part me of thinks, “I know, don’t ask,” but the other part of me(I guess it’s the sick part) couldn’t put down this stoner tale of criminality. Cetarti is a pot-smoking loser nearing forty, who is unemployed and running out of money. And like it always does, trouble starts with a phone call. He finds out that his mother and older brother were shot by her married boyfriend who then shot himself. He drives from Cordoba to Lapachito where the remains of his mother and brother are and is met by Duarte, a smarmy, aged, pot-smoking friend of Molina, Cetarti’s mother’s lover. Duarte offers a deal to Cetarti to collect on insurance. Cetarti is quick to agree since he has no emotional attachment to his mother or brother and is in need of money. A bit later we are introduced to a second narrator, Danielito, the son of Molina’s ex-wife. Danielito is young and also a heavy duty pot-smoker. He is the minion of Duarte who turns out to be a violent kidnapper. Through a weed haze, we learn of each character’s fascinations including giant squid, dancing elephants, disgusting fetish porn and model airplanes. Despite all that, I was drawn in by the duality of each character and bizarre loyalties each one rationalizes. Even though it’s difficult to believe anything gets done with all the 420 going on, there is a streamlined plot that pushes this forward in a really powerful way.

It’s about time I return to more entries for this year’s award, but it’s reading very well so far. Don’t just take my word for it, grab one the titles above and see for yourself. Stay tuned for posts from all our judges!

27 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second book from Frisch & Co. has just been released— Under this Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued and translated by Megan McDowell.

Cetarti spends his days in a cloud of pot smoke, watching nature documentaries on television. A call from a stranger, informing him that his mother and brother have been murdered, finally tears him from his lethargy: he must identify the bodies. After making sure he has enough pot for the trip, he sets out to the remote Argentinian village of Lapachito, an ominous place, where the houses are sinking deeper and deeper into the mud and a lurid, horrific sun is driving everyone crazy. When Duarte, a former military man turned dedicated criminal, ropes Cetarti into a scheme to cash in on his mother’s life insurance, events quickly spiral out of control. . .

A riveting, thrilling, and shocking read, Under This Terrible Sun paints the portrait of a civilizational in terminal decline, where the border between reality and nightmare has become increasingly blurred.

This is only available as an ebook, which you can purchase via the Frisch & Co. website or from your favorite ebook retailer.

And as with La Vida Doble, we should have a review of this up in the not too distant future.

27 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This month, Yale University Press is publishing La Vida Doble by Chilean author Arturo Fontaine, translated by Megan McDowell.

Set in the darkest years of the Pinochet dictatorship, La Vida Doble is the story of Lorena, a leftist militant who arrives at a merciless turning point when every choice she confronts is impossible. Captured by agents of the Chilean repression, withstanding brutal torture to save her comrades, she must now either forsake the allegiances of motherhood or betray the political ideals to which she is deeply committed.

Arturo Fontaine’s Lorena is a study in contradictions—mother and combatant, intellectual and lover, idealist and traitor—and he places her within a historical context that confounds her dilemmas. Though she has few viable options, she is no mere victim, and Fontaine disallows any comfortable high moral ground. His novel is among the most subtle explorations of human violence ever written.

To mark this publication, YUP’s blog just published this interview Megan McDowell did with the author.

Megan McDowell: What does it mean to be translated for an English-speaking audience who won’t have the intimate experience and knowledge of Chile’s history that your Chilean readers have had?

Arturo Fontaine: It’s true that the Chileans, Argentines, or Spanish who have read the novel are closer to what I’m narrating. Even so, the story itself is enough. A novel is like a laboratory where an experiment is taking place, but the experiment can be repeated in other places and in other ways because what it shows is of general significance. Hopefully the readers of La Vida Doble: A Novel will be submerged in the strange and idiosyncratic world in which Lorena must live, where they’ll find not “Chileans” or “Latin Americans” but rather simply humans of flesh and bone who cross over by means of the story. Hopefully. Lorena herself says: “Listen well: don’t let the historical anecdote I’m telling constrain you; Chile’s narrow geography, either.

MMcD: A related question—in the U.S., words like “Socialism,” “Communism,” and “Revolution” have a different resonance than they do in Chile. Even for people on the left, “communism” is associated with experiences of dictatorship and repression, and doesn’t have romantic or idealistic associations that it does for Lorena, or that people in Chile are more aware of, even if they don’t share them; there is little history of socialist ideas or movements in the U.S. Is there anything in particular you think your North American readers should be aware of about Chile’s history as they read your book?

AF: Not much, really. Lorena makes things understood as they need to be understood; for example, what it means to her to belong to a radical revolutionary movement that tries to win a utopia through armed struggle, one that demands from her the complete sacrifice of her life. There have been so many movements like that, and there always will be. Whether the inspiration comes from Che Guevara, or the movement’s name is this or that, or whatever the specific content of the project for a new society, these are not essential matters. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for something that feels huge, almost impossible, is always a human possibility. The Islamic fundamentalists are painful reminders of this. Furthermore, the immediate enemy is brutal dictatorship. But the use of torture to get information out of terrorist groups is something that has happened in many countries, even in some democratic ones and not too long ago . . . I would like for the novel to show, in contrast to the film Zero Dark Thirty, the victim’s perspective, the way his or her identity as a person is gradually torn to shreds. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty—in spite of its merits, such as its momentum—takes on torture in a superficial way. It only shows us the perpetrator’s gaze, and the victim is thus dehumanized. This kind of treatment “un-realizes” cruelty. Henry James, comparing some Dutch painters with Guardi, at some point uses the expression “artistic conscience”. “The Italian,” writes James, “. . . dispenses with effort and insight, and trusts to mere artifice and manner—and a very light manner at that. . . . The Dutchman . . . feels that, unless he is faithful, he is doing nothing.” I believe in that concept. I believe that an artist must be faithful to the world he is trying to show, to the world he wants us to imagine. Kafka, for example, was a master in this. For an artist to do this superficially is an ethical failure in his work as such.

MMcD: As I worked on the book, you were very helpful and generous in answering my questions, and you also kept a bit of distance, stressing that I had to find the voice, the way to convey the book in English, which was something that I appreciated a lot—a translator couldn’t ask for a better balance. I wonder if you have spent time considering your stance on the translator’s role, or if you’ve ever been a translator yourself?

AF: I’m happy you felt that way. The novel in English is your work. La Vida Doble: A Novel should read as if it had been thought and written in English. I think your translation achieves that. It’s been your responsibility, as translator, to find an equivalent to what one reads in Spanish, but also flows in English. Translating is a creative task, an artistic and difficult one. But not impossible. Proust’s A la recherché . . . flows with a rhythm characteristic of French, of English in Scott Moncrieff’s translation, and of Spanish by Pedro Salinas, José María Quiroga Plá and Consuelo Berges. A priori, it seems like it shouldn’t be possible. I don’t think El Quijote ever had an English translation that did it justice until Edith Grossman’s. If Nabokov had read Cervantes in that translation he wouldn’t have written what he did in his Lectures on Literature. He didn’t get the humor or the humanity of Quijote. Gregory Rabassa did an extraordinary translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. When I was studying at Columbia University, Rabassa came to a translation workshop directed by Frank MacShane, who was then the director of the Writing Division. I asked Rabassa what his secret was in translating One Hundred Years of Solitude. He answered: “Before starting to work, I would spend twenty minutes reading a novel by Faulkner”.

And yes, I have published some versions—I don’t dare called them translations—of some classic poems in Spanish. Many times, I must admit, I’ve failed. For example, I’ve struggled and struggled for years trying to translate two very famous poems by Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” They stood by me like two faithful dogs during my father’s long and painful illness before he died. I have never managed to translate them. I go back and try again every once in a while. The problem, of course, is their music, so interlaced with the metaphors and the meaning. These are cases when it seems like the music shapes the meaning.

Read the entire piece here. And hopefully we’ll have a review of this up shortly.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a book that I talk about on our yet-unpublished “2013 Preview Podcast.” Which hopefully will be up in a few days, once our podcasting computer is fixed. So when you hear me talk about Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published by FSG, you can temper my vocal enthusiasm with this review.

I’ve been a big Zambra fan since I read the first paragraph of Bonsai. His first two novels—one of which we published—are spectacular gems, best read in one sitting and reflected upon for days.

Which is why it’s a bit heartbreaking that Ways of Going Home is a bit of a disappointment. (To me at least.) I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read a sample way back when, and I’m really glad that FSG is behind it and will help get Zambra an even larger international audience than he currently has. But it would be intellectually dishonest to simply praise this book because Zambra’s one of our authors and a great guy, and Megan’s a friend and a great translator. Which is why I wrote this as seriously as I could.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, with the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

28 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra’s third book to be published in English (and second translated by Megan McDowell), packs a lot of themes—historical memory, difficulties of love, honesty in art—into a brief 139 page novel set between the two great Chilean earthquakes in 1985 and 2010. It’s an ambitious project from one of Granta’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and one that is a bit of a mess.

Before getting into the reasons why I think this book doesn’t work, here’s a brief synopsis of the two intertwined storylines: In what I’ll call the “Claudia novel” storyline, the narrator is growing up in Chile in the mid-1980s, at the time when Pinochet was finally forced out. On the night of the 1985 earthquake, he meets Claudia, a pretty, slightly older girl who is somehow connected to the boy’s neighbor, Raúl, the only single man in the neighborhood. Two years after the earthquake, he sees Claudia again, and she asks him to spy on Raúl. That’s part one. Part two—of the Claudia novel narrative—takes place twenty years later, when the narrator decides to try and find out what’s going on with Claudia. Oh so coincidentally, she’s about to return home to deal with her father’s death, during which time, she hooks up with the narrator, explains her life story (bit more on that later), and then breaks things off with the narrator.

Interspersed between these two sections are two sections written by the “author” about writing his Claudia novel. The author and his wife have separated, he’s a bit lonely and nostalgic, and having a really hard time writing this novel. He wants Eme—his estranged wife—to read it and approve of it, and he surrounds his explication of this basic desire with a ton of quasi-intellectual observations about life and forgetting, parents and love, and everything else. He reunites with Eme briefly, but that doesn’t really work out. Then the 2010 earthquake takes place.

Two earthquakes, two failed love stories, two tellings of the same story involving his mother, Eme claiming Claudia’s story is just a retelling of hers, the end of Pinochet’s realm kicks off the book and Sebastian Pinera’s election ends it—there’s a lot of doubling in this book. Also the two narrators—one pretty obviously the novelized reflection of the other.

Overall, this set-up—which calls to mind tons of so-called metafictional works, such as Lost in the Funhouse and the vastly superior Mulligan Stew—is Zambra’s attempt to break out of the writing style that defined his first two novels. This is a very difficult situation for a young author. Those two books have a very specific style, one that’s emotionally affective, incredibly compelling to read, and instantly recognizable. The writing in those novels is very precise, almost poetic, and the stories are related from a restricted third-person point of view, allowing for certain “cheesy” moments to play more seriously than they might in a first-person voice.

Anyway. Ways of Going Home feels like a novelist trying to change his aesthetic, maturing from something simple and direct into something more complex and respectably “Literary.” Reading the representation of the author in this novel as Zambra himself, and the author’s relationship to the Claudia novel he’s writing as Zambra’s relationship to this book, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anxiety, an awareness that this book might not live up to heightened expectations. And one of the best tricks for evading that is to foreground it (it’s a book about an author who can’t write his next novel!) and then bury it in a false postmodern trick (the novel isn’t just a novel, but a novel about the difficulty of writing novels!). Everything about this rings false, and makes me feel sympathetic for Zambra—he doesn’t have to hide his talents. But then again, I have no idea what it’s like trying to create art after being anointed by just about everyone important in the world of letters.

Put in that context—striving to evolve as a writer in a situation in which everyone expects huge things from you—makes the bad writing in this book nearly forgivable. But only nearly.

Claudia’s first memory of the stadium is also happy. In 1977 it was announced that Chespirito, the Mexican comedian, would bring the entire cast of his show to perform at the National Stadium. Claudia was four years old then; she watched Chespirito’s show and she liked it a lot.

Her parents refused to take her at first, but finally they gave in. The four of them went, and Claudia and Ximena had a great time. Many years later Claudia found out that for her parents that day had been torture. They had spent every moment thinking how absurd it was to see the stadium filled with laughing people. Throughout the entire show they had thought only, obsessively, about the dead.

This is a pretty trite set-piece, and one that comes off as über-manipulative and totally unbelievable. (I distrust all writing that hinges on memories of a child, since most of these memories are way more specific than any person would actually have.) It’s the sort of manipulative sequence you’d find in story from a mediocre creative writer. (See how it contrasts the naive happiness of the child with the sullen awareness of the parents? And how parents sacrifice for their children? Do you see what I did there?)

But it gets worse:

I’ll always remember the pain, one night, years ago: in the middle of an argument we started caressing each other and she got on top of me, but in the middle of penetration she couldn’t control her rage and she shut her vagina completely.

SHUT IT! SHUT THAT VAGINA!

A few days ago Eme left a box for me with the neighbors. Only today did I dare open it. There were two shirts, a scarf, my Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson movies, my Tom Waits and Wu-Tang Clan CDs, as well as some book I lent her these past months.

God, that is SO PRECIOUS. At this point in time, can you really do something like this in an unironic fashion? Your Wes Anderson movie? Oh, you, Mr. Narrator, are SO SMART AND SENSITIVE. (And have very questionable taste in directors.)

This isn’t the Zambra book I wanted to read. In part because one of the challenges Zambra’s trying to face—how to write about Pinochet and the violent history of Chile when that wasn’t something you experienced first hand—could have resulted in an absolutely fascinating book.

In the Claudia section of Ways of Going Home, the one that opens in 1985, just a few years before Pinochet is deposed, the narrator is 9 years old, fairly confused about the politics of the country, in part because his parents have remained on the sidelines during the Allende-Pinochet periods. He is a character forcibly disconnected from the past, living in a sort of constructed world:

We arrived, finally, at a neighborhood with only two streets: Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A lot of the streets in Maipú had, and still have, those absurd names: my cousins, for example, lived on First Symphony Way, near Second and Third Symphony, perpendicular to Concert Street, and close to the passages Opus One, Opus Two, Opus Three, et cetera. Or the very street where I lived, Aladdin, between Odin and Ramayana and parallel to Lemuria; obviously, toward the end of the seventies some people had a lot of fun choosing names for the streets where the new families would later live—the families without history, who were willing or perhaps resigned to live in that fantasy world.

“I live in the neighborhood of real names,” said Claudia on the afternoon of our reencounter, looking seriously into my eyes.

In case you don’t catch the subtext—and it’s these sort of so-obvious-as-it’s-beaten-over-your-head allusions and metaphors that marks another flaw in this book—Claudia’s family is political, was part of Allende’s government, is reactionary.

I vote with a sense of sorrow, with very little faith. I know that Sebastián Piñera will win the first round I’m sure he will also win the second. It seems horrible. It’s obvious we’ve lost our memories. We will calmly, candidly, hand the country over to Piñera and to Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ.

It’s an interesting artistic conundrum: How to write about a childhood taking place during a very important time in history, but one that you, and a lot of your characters, weren’t directly impacted by. Tricky.

Which brings me to David Shields. If you read enough David Shields, your relationship to literature is irrevocably altered. The part of Shields that always sticks with me is the idea that the best works of art are those in which the creator’s consciousness as he/she creates is revealed in the course of the work of art. Frequently, these are hybrid works that aren’t exactly autobiographical or fictional—what Shields refers to as “lyric essays.”

There are hints in Ways of Going Home that this sort of “coming clean” is something that Zambra was aiming for:

It’s strange, it’s silly to attempt a genuine story about something, about someone, about anyone, about oneself. But it’s necessary as well.

Or, more explicitly (this book excels at stating things explicitly):

Today my friend Pablo called me so he could read me this phrase he found in a book by Tim O’Brien: “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.” I kept thinking about that and stayed awake all night. It’s true. We remember the sounds of the images. And sometimes, when we write, we wash everything clean, as if by doing so we could advance towards something. We ought to simply describe those sounds, those stains on memory. That arbitrary selection, nothing more. That’s why we lie so much, in the end. That’s why a book is always the opposite of another immense and strange book. An illegible and genuine book that we translate treacherously, that we betray with our habit of passable prose.

I think about the beautiful beginning of Family Sayings, Natalia Ginzburg’s novel: “The places, events, and people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.”

The sort of honesty and directness that Zambra is talking about and aiming for is much more evident in his earlier works. See the opening of Bonsai:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

The unveiling of the creative process in Ways of Going Home is way more dishonest. Instead of seeing the real Zambra struggle with the above themes and his attempt to create a more “mature” style, we get two manipulative narrators, each as “novelistic” as the other. Going back to the doubling mentioned way back in the beginning of this review, instead of having two narratives—one fictional, one an autobiographical reflection on that—we get two fictional bits, which play off each other in a way that, unfortunately, isn’t very satisfying.

All that said, I eagerly await Zambra’s next book. He is one of the best young Latin American writers, and even this book, as disappointing as it might be to me, is better than a lot of books that will come out this year. He is still an author to watch.

15 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

So after the first ALTA panel—on the “subversive” translator and the idea of making the translator “visible” without interfering too much with the original text—Megan McDowell (pictured above) and I came up with a project idea. (Or what some may call a gimmick.) We thought that we could help literally make translators visible by posting pictures of ALTA attendees and asking a few questions. We thought it would be a cool way of letting non-translation world people get to know who these “invisible” translators are, while pointing out how cool the ALTA conference attendees are, and getting some good book recommendations along the way.

I think we did about 25 profiles, which I’ll be posting over the next couple weeks. I’ll include everyone’s answers, maybe another anecdote or two, and possibly some additional information about these people. (Translators tend to be pretty humble people and not very good at self-promotion . . .)

Anyway, re: Megan—I first met her ages ago, when she was a fellow at Dalkey Archive’s short-lived Chicago office. She was one of the best fellows we ever had. Very energetic, and very bright. Post-Dalkey, she spent some time in Chile, attended the University of Texas-Dallas where she studied translation, and got heavily involved with ALTA. (She was at the conference as the official photographer, making her the perfect partner for this project, and a good reason to feature her first.)

On with the questions with my comments in italics below:

Favorite Word, in any language: murcielago, which is Spanish for “bat.”

Weirdly, another translator picked this word as well . . . I’ll point this out again when I feature her, but not only did Robin Myers try and choose “murcielago,” but her other favorite word happens to be Megan’s second choice. It’s like translator telepathy.

Best Translation You’ve Done to Date: The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra.

Which will be published by Open Letter this May . . . And in the meantime I HIGHLY recommend checking out Zambra’s Bonsai, which Melville House did last year, and which was a 2009 Best Translated Book finalist.

Book that Needs to be Published in English Translation: Ayer by Juan Emar.

We actually have this on submission . . . I have a feeling I’ll be able to repeat that a number of times over the course of this project, usually followed by “for the past eighteen months.” Which is not so cool. But seriously, Emar sounds very interesting and was featured in RCF a couple years back.

1 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 15 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 author is Alejandro Zambra—a personal favorite and the first author from this list to be part of the Open Letter catalog.



Seeing that I’ve written about Zambra before (namely here and here) and that we publish The Private Lives of Trees, this seemed like an easy post to write. But it never is, is it?

So at the risk of repeating myself, I want to try and explain what it is about Zambra’s work that I really like.

I first heard about Zambra at the ALTA conference before Bonsai came out from Melville House. Megan McDowell read a bit of his work (if memory serves, she read from The Private Lives of Trees, which may have even been The Secret Lives of Trees at that time) as part of her ALTA fellowship. I’m usually pretty terrible at paying attention during readings (much prefer discussions, modulated voices, and off-the-cuff responses), but I remember being struck by the freshness and honesty of his prose.

When Bonsai came out, I read it from the perspective of a judge for the Best Translated Book Awards, and fell in love with this first paragraph:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

Yes! Yes, the rest is literature!

In some ways, this is a bit of a wink, a pulling back of the curtain, a metafictional moment that was popular years ago and has been written and rewritten every since. But at the same time, Zambra’s novella adopts this tone, this style, with an attitude more akin to truthfulness than game-playing. He may be young, but this youthfulness comes through less in the look-at-me-I’m-winking-back cuteness of some of his peers, and more in the I’m-young-and-believe-in-things sense. Stealing a bit of an argument Adam Thirlwell develops in The Delighted States, Zambra tries to get to a sense of reality through a style that feels alien. It’s so unadorned, it’s so non-American-realist that it feels much closer to “how things really are.” We die. The rest is literature.

I also like the way Zambra just tells things in a way that almost feels artless . . . or at least not as manipulative as some other novels (cough, Freedom, cough) can feel at times:

The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax II at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges, because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.

Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.

(By the way, I’m pulling these passages from this issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which included this entire novella. Not entirely sure what would happen if you tried to subscribe to VQR and access this issue, but it might be worth a try. Otherwise, you can buy the Melville House edition, which was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.)

After Bonsai came out—to much praise and bookseller adoration—we had the opportunity to publish Zambra’s second novel, the aforementioned The Private Lives of Trees. Stylistically, this is a lateral step. It’s got the same sort of voice, the same unadorned prose:

Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with “The Private Lives of Trees,” an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees and not people or animals or, as they say to each other, stupid hunks of cement.

Daniela is not his daughter, but it is hard for him not to think of her that way. Three years ago Julián joined the family. He came to them; Verónica and the little girl were already there. He married Verónica and in some ways, also, Daniela, who was hesitant at first but little by little began to accept her new life: “Julián is uglier than my dad, but he’s still nice,” she would say to her friends, who nodded with surprising seriousness, even solemnity, as if they somehow understood that Julián’s arrival was not an accident. As the months passed this stepfather even earned a place in the drawings Daniela made at school. There’s one in particular that Julián always keeps nearby: the three of them, at the beach, the little girl and Verónica are making cakes out of sand, and he is dressed in jeans and a shirt, reading and smoking under a perfectly round and yellow sun.

It’s a shorter, tighter book, depicting Julián’s long night waiting for Verónica to come home from art class. (She’s late. Really late.) This is really the only event of the novel’s plot. As the omniscient narrator puts it,

When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue. The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.

The rest of the novella is a trip through Julián’s imagination.

Getting back to this issue of Granta though . . . The piece they chose to include is “Ways of Going Home,” an excerpt from his forthcoming novel. A novel that’s much longer (or so I’ve heard), and has a very different style from the others. The presence of a first-person narrator changes Zambra’s game entirely, although he’s still trying to tell us about life (or, life as literature) in as direct a way as possible. Here’s the opening:

Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents any more. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but that afternoon I thought they were lost. I believed I knew how to get home and they didn’t.

‘You went a different way,’ my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen.

You were the one who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

Papa watched placidly from the armchair. Sometimes I think he spent all his time just sitting there, thinking. But maybe he didn’t really think about anything. Maybe he just closed his eyes and received the present with calm and resignation. That night he spoke, though: ‘This is a good thing,’ he told me. ‘You overcame adversity.’ Mama looked at him suspiciously, but he kept on stringing together a confused speech about adversity. Back then, I had no idea what adversity could possibly mean.

I lay back on the chair across from him and pretended to be asleep. I heard them argue, always the same pattern. Mama would say five sentences and Papa would answer with a single word. Sometimes he would answer sharply: ‘No.’ Sometimes he would say, practically shouting: ‘Liar,’ or ‘False.’ Sometimes he would even say, like the police: ‘Negative.’

That night Mama carried me to bed and, perhaps knowing I was only pretending to sleep and was listening attentively, curiously, she told me: ‘Your father is right. Now we know you won’t get lost. That you know how to walk alone in the street. But you should concentrate more on the way. You should walk faster.’

I listened to her. From then on, I walked faster. In fact, a couple of years later, the first time I talked to Claudia, she asked me why I walked so fast. She had been following me for days, spying on me. We had met a short time before, on 3 March 1985 – the night of the earthquake – but we didn’t talk then.

And I’m pretty much 100% sure that this book will come out in English sometime soon . . . .

Don’t forget! Sign up now for a subscription to Granta and get this entire issue—featuring 22 Spanish-language novelists—absolutely free!

13 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

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.

July 2010

The Return by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Chile, New Directions)

Let’s start in the Southern Cone with the latest book from international superstar Roberto Bolano. Fans of his can’t get enough, and this collection of stories—his second to appear in English—should be fantastic. The earlier story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, is one of my favorite of all his ND books. And this collections sounds just as stunningly strange and wonderful: “Consider the title piece: a young party animal collapses in a Parisian disco and dies on the dance floor; just as his soul is departing his body, it realizes strange doings are afoot — and what follows defies the imagination (except Bolaño’s own).”

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Chile, Open Letter)

Personal favorite from our list. I love Zambra’s style, his directness. This book is about a man who tells his step-daughter a nightly bedtime story about “The Private Lives of Trees.” On this particular night his wife is late . . . and then later . . . and later. And the book ends when either she arrives or he decides she never will. If you want a chance at winning a free copy of this, visit our Facebook page and “like” or comment on the Private Lives of Trees post.

Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore edited by Alvin Pang, translated from Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English by a variety of translators (Singapore, Autumn Hill)

Not surprisingly, not many works of literature from Singapore make their way into this country, which is one reason why this book is so intriguing. This anthology is a collaboration between Autumn Hill Books and the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and features work from thirty-nine contemporary writers. To illustrate the range of pieces in this book, here’s a brief description of a few pieces (from Autumn Hill’s website): “Tan Chee Lay’s meditative ‘Post-Terrorist Phenomena,’ a candid re-examination of the War on Terror, carries the subtle assurance of centuries of literary tradition in ‘san wen,’ a popular Chinese form of creative non-fiction; Malay-Muslim Johar Buang’s verse is recognizably modern, yet draws from the same mystical tradition as Rumi and other Sufi masters; Yeng Puay Ngon’s Ginsbergesque long urban poem, Wena Poon’s magic realist short story and Xi Ni’er’s barbed fictive quips would all find favor in global literary circles today, while remaining grounded in a sense of place.”

Winter Journey by Jaume Cabre, translated from the Catalan by Patricia Lunn (Spain, Swan Isle Press)

A few years back, when I visited Barcelona on an editorial trip—and fell in love with the works of Merce Rodoreda and Quim Monzo, along with Spanish wine, tapas, and the entire Catalan culture—Jaume Cabre’s massive book Les veus del Pamano had recently come out. It sounded pretty interesting, but for a variety of reasons, we couldn’t get it on our list. So I’m really glad that someone else is making some of his work available. Winter Journey is supposedly a collection of short stories, but according to Swan Isle it is “a singularly brilliant and enigmatic narrative, novelistic in its approach, with mysterious connections linking characters, objects, and ideas across time and place. The text takes the form of a Schubertian musical progression in prose, a philosophical mystery moving freely through a labyrinth of centuries and cities, historical and contemporary.”

Tomorrow we’ll look at August . . .

Three Fates Linda Le Mark Polizzotti New Directions

26 May 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Alejandro Zambra is in New York this week, supporting the sort-of-forthcoming-sort-of-just-published The Private Lives of Trees. On Monday, he was at the lovely Greenlight Books in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on a panel that Dennis Johnson put together to celebrate Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Series. Here he his with his American agent, Andrea Montejo, Lore Segal, and Dennis, just before the panel started.

Greenlight has a display of the entire Novella series (I snuck Private Lives in there too!).

Then last night he had a reading with his translator Megan McDowell at the beautiful 192 Books.

I had a front row seat.

If you’d like to meet Alejandro while he’s here in NYC, and hear him read from The Private Lives of Trees, your last chance is tomorrow night at the Melville House Bookstore, where we’re throwing a book launch party for him. And when you meet him, be sure to ask what he thinks of Pablo Neruda.

23 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Only seems appropriate that just before Christmas we should announce our summer list of titles . . . You can click here to download a pdf version of the new catalog (which contains excerpts from all the books), or, for those of you who are anti-pdf, the list below has the basic information for the next five Open Letter titles.

All of these titles will be available through better bookstores everywhere and through the Open Letter website. Additionally, you can subscribe and receive a year’s worth of books (10 in total) for $100 (free shipping!). Or get a six-month subscription (5 books) for only $60 (again, with free shipping).

Here are the titles from one of our best lists yet:

Gasoline by Quim Monzó (excerpt)
translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

For the first time in his life, Heribert Juliá is unable to paint. On the eve of an important gallery exhibition, for which he’s created nothing, he’s bored with life: he falls asleep while making love with his mistress, wanders from bar to bar, drinking whatever comes to his attention first, and meets the evidence of his wife Helena’s infidelity with complete indifference. Humbert Herrera, an up-and-coming artist who can’t stop creating, picks up the threads of Heribert’s life, taking his wife, replacing him at the gallery, and pursuing his former mistress. Heribert is finally undone by a massive sculpture, while Humbert is planning the sculpture to end sculpture, the poem to end poetry, and the film to end film, all while mounting three simultaneous shows.

A fun-house mirror through which he examines the creative process, the life and loves of artists, and the New York art scene, Gasoline confirms Quim Monzó as the foremost Catalan writer of his generation.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch (excerpt)
translated from the Polish by David Frick

A comic gem, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities takes place in 1963, in the latter days of the Polish post-Stalinist “thaw.” The narrator, Jerzyk (“little Jerzy”), is a teenager who is keenly interested in his father, a retired postal administrator, and his father’s closest friend, Mr. Traba, a failed Lutheran clergyman, alcoholic, would-be Polish insurrectionist, and one of the wildest literary characters since Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby. One drunken afternoon, Mr. Traba and the narrator’s nameless father decide to take charge of their lives and do one final good turn for humanity: travel to distant Warsaw and assassinate the de facto Polish head of state, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka—assassinating Mao Tse-tung, after all, would be impractical. And they decide to involve Jerzyk in their scheme . . .

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep—and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai—but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel.

Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.

Klausen by Andreas Maier (excerpt)
translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the small town of Klausen, or rather, everyone knows: a bomb went off on the autobahn, or at a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting at the town from a bridge; it all stems from a fight over measuring noise pollution on the town square, or it was the work of eco-terrorists, or Italians. And while nobody knows who or what to blame—although they’re certainly uneasy about the Moroccan and Albanian immigrants who are squatting in an abandoned castle—they all suspect that Josef Gasser, who spent several years away from Klausen, in Berlin, is behind it all. Only one thing is clear: Klausen was now a crime scene.

In Klausen, Andreas Maier has taken Thomas Bernhard’s method—the nested indirect speech, the repetition, the endless paragraph—and pointed it at an entire town. A town where one confusion leads to the next, where everyone is living in a fog of rumor, but where everyone claims to know exactly what’s going on, even if they’ve changed their story several times.

To Hell with Cronjé by Ingrid Winterbach (excerpt)
translated from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke

Two scientists, Reitz Steyn and Ben Maritz, find themselves in a “transit camp for those temporarily and permanently unfit for battle” during the Boer War. Captured on suspicion of desertion and treason—during a trek across an unchanging desert of bushes, rocks, and ant hills to help transport a fellow-soldier, who has suffered debilitating shell-shock, to his mother—they are forced to await the judgment of a General Bergh, unsure whether they are to be conscripted into Bergh’s commando, allowed to continue their mission, or executed for treason. As the weeks pass, and the men’s despair at ever returning to their families reaches its peak, they are sent on a bizarre mission . . .

A South African Heart of Darkness, Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronjé is a poetic exploration of friendship and camaraderie, an eerie reflection on the futility of war, and a thought-provoking re-examination of the founding moments of the South African nation.

As a special preview, coming up in the fall 2010 are: Mathias Énard’s Zone, Juan José Saer’s Glosa, Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassadors, and a couple more titles we’re still working on. More information as soon as we have it . . .

3 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After briefly lamenting the fact that there’s not a lot of places to turn to to learn about/gain exposure to international poetry, I opened my mail and found the new issue of Rattapallax, which, along with CALQUE and Circumference, is one of the best sources for poetry in translation. This particular issue kicks off by featuring eleven Bengali poets . . .

Also arriving within the past few days is issue #11 of PEN America, which also has some great international content, including: an interview between Adam Gopnik and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, fiction by Alejandro Zambra (from Megan McDowell’s translation of The Private Lives of Trees, which cough cough, Open Letter is publishing in the spring, but isn’t credited for in the journal . . .), memoir from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and poetry by Liu Xiaobo (trans by Jeffrey Yang). (And a piece by Ed Park!)

30 June 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

We wanted to post this article about Alejandro Zambra in The Nation when it came out a few weeks ago, but we were in the middle of trying to sign Zambra up, so we wanted to wait until it was official.

Readers who consider Roberto Bolano the pole star of contemporary Chilean fiction will be jolted by Zambra’s little book. For though Zambra has been stamped as the Next Great Chilean Writer in many circles, he’s in no way Bolano’s heir. (But then, who is?) Where the heroes of Bolano’s novels are resolutely proletarian, Zambra’s characters are mostly downwardly mobile bourgeoisie. (At one point, Bonsai even refers to working-class beachgoers as lumpen, or riffraff.) Where Bolano wrought romantic detective stories showcasing the virtues of courage and integrity, Zambra’s protagonists lead mundane lives rife with small deceptions. It’s no surprise that Zambra says he reads Bolano very little. He doesn’t care much for Bolano’s literary hero Julio Cortazar, either.

(Chad just shuddered a little when he read those last two sentences)

Well, it’s now official. In 2010, Open Letter will be publishing Zambra’s second novel, The Private Lives of Trees, in a lovely translation by Megan McDowell. Bonsai was one of our favorite books last year, and we couldn’t be more excited to be publishing this new book.

A ways back, we published a short review of the book than Megan wrote:

Zambra’s second book, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees) has not been published in English. This book is slightly longer and more intimate in its feel—we are brought deeper into the everyday tragedy of the main character, Julián. Julián is waiting for his wife, Verónica, to come home from her drawing class. This is the premise of the book, Julián’s ever more desperate waiting, the thoughts and memories that accompany his vigil: “the story goes on and Verónica hasn’t arrived, best to keep that in view, repeat it one and a thousand times: when she comes home the novel ends, the book continues until she comes home or until Julián is sure that she will never come home again.”

10 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is an overview of two books by Alejandro Zambra—Bonzai (forthcoming from Melville House), and La vida privada de los arboles (untranslated)—by Megan McDowell, a young translator at the University of Texas, Dallas and former Dalkey Archive employee.

10 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

There is a series of popular literature in Chile that you can still buy in used book fairs, which color-coded books according to World literature (beige), Spanish Literature (red), and Chilean Literature (brown). There was no Latin American literature. This conception of things made an impression on Alejandro Zambra, who says he is part of the last generation to grow up reading these books, for whom Chilean literature was brown, and Borges part of that nebulous “World literature.” This library makes an appearance in Zambra’s novel La vida privada de los arboles, when the main character reminisces about the small wealth the acquisition of these books meant for his middle class family in the 80’s, when books were hard to come by.

While I was in Chile last year looking for a translation project, I went to bookstores, met with editors and authors, and quizzed them all about important contemporary writers in Chile—Alejandro Zambra was the only author who showed up on everyone’s list. Zambra has published two novels with Anagrama, Bonzaí and La vida privada de los arboles, which he calls “sibling-books”, united by the central image of a man jealously, almost obsessively tending a bonsai tree. The image is a metaphor for the creation of literature, and is a good figure to accompany Zambra’s own carefully crafted, often surprising style. Zambra writes following Borges’ advice to “write as if summarizing a book that has already been written;” the result is a voice that is both detached and personal, cool and intense.

Bonzai has just been published in its entirety as part of the Latin American issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, translated by Carolina de Robertis, and the same translation is set to be published by Melville House Press. The book is short, but its compass is broad, both in terms of the time spanned in the book and the emotional layers it accomplishes. The book follows Julio, who falls in love with Amelia. They share a consuming relationship and literary aspirations; they are disillusioned by both relationship and literature, and separate. Julio’s dreams of writing eventually turn into the goal of growing, shaping and tending a bonsai tree, because ‘“Caring for a bonsai is like writing,’ thinks Julio. ‘Writing is like caring for a bonsai.”’

Zambra’s second book, La vida privada de los arboles (The Private Lives of Trees) has not been published in English. This book is slightly longer and more intimate in its feel—we are brought deeper into the everyday tragedy of the main character, Julián. Julián is waiting for his wife, Verónica, to come home from her drawing class. This is the premise of the book, Julián’s ever more desperate waiting, the thoughts and memories that accompany his vigil: “the story goes on and Verónica hasn’t arrived, best to keep that in view, repeat it one and a thousand times: when she comes home the novel ends, the book continues until she comes home or until Julián is sure that she will never come home again.”

Of both books, Zambra says “I obeyed the simple desire to put forth images that seemed valid to me. Now I think that in writing those books I wanted to name the mediocre, non-novelistic lives of those of us who grew up reading red, beige, brown-colored books. Now I think that I wanted, perhaps, to speak of characters that don’t want or cannot be characters, maybe because they are Chilean. Maybe I wanted to speak of our poor vegetable past, of deception, of fragile new families; ultimately, of the life which is, as John Ashbery says, ‘a book that has been put down,’ and of death, the deaths of others and our own death.”

In my opinion, Zambra is the best of a generation of Chilean writers that has little or no unifying characteristic, a generation that is starting to experiment more than any other generation has in Chile. Zambra writes of Chilean novelists that “they, we, write from outside in, as if the novel were, really, the long echo of a suppressed poem. ” He makes no claims or attempts to be representative of his country or era, and in that lies the brightness of his writing: the simple endeavor to say something true along with the awareness of the relativity of that truth. Zambra’s “valid images” are delicate portraits are the everyday, and his books some of the most exciting of that recent category, Latin American literature.

Books by Alejandro Zambra:

Bonzai
96 pages, 9.50 €
978-84-339-7129-6
Anagrama

Translation from the Spanish by Carolina de Robertis forthcoming from Melville House

La vida privada de los arboles
128 pages, 12 €
978-84-339-7154-8
Anagrama

Not Yet Translated into English

....
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