As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale and published by Melville House Books
This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, one of the foremost Iranian authors of his generation, has so far been unrepresented in English translation due to the political nature of his works—all credit, then, to both Haus Publishing (and Melville House Books) and English PEN for their support in making The Colonel available. Credit must also be given to translator Tom Patterdale, whose avoidance of Latinate English vocabulary in preference for words with Anglo-Saxon roots is a valiant attempt to reproduce some of the convention-shattering effects of what he describes as Dowlatabadi’s “rough and ready” Persian.
The action unfolds over the course of one rainy night in a small Iranian town, a few years into the violent aftermath of the 1979 revolution, though Dowlatabadi reaches even further back into the recent history of his country, for example to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, to demonstrate the ways in which the past constantly impinges upon the present. At the very start of the book is the eponymous Colonel, an officer in the shah’s army, receives a knock at the door
Every knock at the door broke the caressing silence of the rain. There was nothing but the sound of unremitting rain drumming on the rusty tin roof, so unceasing that it amounted to silence.
They have come to inform him of the death of his youngest daughter, Parwaneh, who has died while being tortured by the regime. The rest of the book concerns the Colonel’s increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve Parwaneh’s body and ensure that she is buried, with at least some sense of propriety, before the night is over.
It is ironic that while the story concerns the attempts at burial, what actually results over the course of the book is a great deal of unearthing, specifically of the Colonel’s guilt over past mistakes, both private and professional, and of the various fates of his five children, none of which have escaped unscathed from the violence and political upheaval. While in the main body of the text, the Colonel is allowed the luxury of reminiscing over his younger, stronger days, his italicized thoughts, with their burden of past guilt, constantly threaten to destabilise the narrative which the Colonel has constructed to quell his conscience.
The Colonel is undoubtedly a dark read, with not much in the way of hope to alleviate the bleakness. Nevertheless, its ‘alternative history’ of the revolution is passionately, powerfully nightmarish, a great literary achievement in addition to being a brave and important window onto a world of which English-readers are still all too ignorant.
Fallen way behind on tracking the brilliant Melville House series on “What Bolano Read.” These ten posts are culled from Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, which Melville House recently published. And which you can purchase for 20% off during Melville’s Holiday Sale (more on the sale below).
In 1996, Roberto Bolaño published Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fictional encyclopedia of right-wing authors. In a review of the English translation by Chris Andrews, Francisco Goldman summarized the novel as depicting “literary Nazis,” portrayed as “self-deluded mediocrities, snobs, opportunists, narcissists, and criminals, none with the talent of a Céline.” Though the writers included in the book are imaginary (like the “airman, assassin and aesthete” Ramirez Hoffman) the world they inhabit is much like ours, and stocked with real-life writers like Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, and José Lezama Lima. [. . .]
But where did Bolaño come up with the idea for a fake encyclopedia? In an interview with Eliseo Álvarez published in 2005 in the Spanish literary journal Turia, Bolaño explains the book’s lineage and its debts owed:
“Nazi Literature in the Americas, I’ll give it to you in descending order, owes a lot to The Temple of Iconoclasts by Rodolfo Wilcock, who is an Argentine writer but who wrote the book in Italian . . . At the same time, his book The Temple of Iconoclasts itself owes a debt to A Universal History of Infamy by Borges, which is not surprising at all because Wilcock was a friend and admirer of Borges. Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy, too, owes a debt to one of his teachers, Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican writer whom has a book called Real and Imagined Portraits. It’s just a jewel. Alfonso Reyes’ book also owes a debt to Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, which is where this all comes from.”
Roberto Bolaño was an avid reader of philosophy. And he was especially drawn to the aphorism — clipped, profound, and, at times, terse thoughts, and a literary form engaged by many of the world’s greatest writers, including Blake, Kafka, Schlegel, Tolstoy, and Wittgenstein, among many, many others. [. . .]
In an essay in Entre paréntesis, Bolaño explains his admiration of Lichtenberg by saying his aphorisms “behave with humor and curiosity, the two most important elements of intelligence.” Bolaño goes on to say that Lichtenberg’s work “prefigured Kafka and the better part of twentieth century literature.” Among them:
“There can hardly be stranger wares in the world than books: printed by people who do not understand them; sold by people who do not understand them; bound, reviewed and read by people who do not understand them; and now even written by people who do not understand them.”
Lichtenberg was primarily a scientist and perhaps most famous among his peers for work with electricity and certain types of fractals now dubbed “Lichtenberg figures.” His empirical nature was also a source for much of his satire.
There is, in general, a lot of humor in his aphorisms, and Bolaño even referred to his work as a “masterpiece of black comedy.” A few examples:
“A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.”
“If all mankind were suddenly to practice honesty, many thousands of people would be sure to starve.”
“A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can`t expect an apostle to look out.”
A collection of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms is available in an English translation by R.J. Hollingdale as The Waste Books. (And available from New York Review Books.)
Bolaño was also an avid reader of French Surrealists like André Breton and Jacques Vaché. Breton’s Nadja, one of Bolaño’s favorites, is absolutely stunning. Some even make the claim that the infrarealist manifesto, penned by Bolaño, was directly inspired by Breton’s own “Surrealist Manifesto”. The effect of Nadja on Bolaño’s writing is evident in the subtlety of the non-linear and dreamlike realities inhabited by many of Bolaño’s characters. Nadja’s surrealism is surely of the same cloth as _2666_’s “surrealism.” It is the not surrealism of fantasy but rather that of hyper-reality, where the reader loses the ability to distinguish dream from waking reality.
Bolaño also gives massive credit to Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In a 1999 interview with the Chilean magazine Capital, Bolaño claims Céline is the only author he can think of who was both a “great writer and a son of a bitch. Just an abject human being. It’s incredible that the coldest moments of his abjection are covered under an aura of nobility, which is only attributable to the power of words.”
In an essay in Entre paréntesis that appeared in English translation in World Literature Today in 2006, titled Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories, Roberto Bolaño outlines a twelve point plan on how to be a “successful short story writer.” Written in true Bolaño style, the list includes advice on everything from how to avoid melancholy to which authors one should dress like. Bolaño even includes points designed to give the reader time to consider the previous point, like number ten: “Give thought to point number nine. Think and reflect on it. You still have time. Think about number nine. To the extent possible, do so on bended knees.”
In point four Bolaño makes reference to the Guatemalan short story writer Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) saying succinctly: “One must read Juan Rulfo and Augusto Monterroso.”
Monterroso is perhaps most famous for his short story “The Dinosaur,” which is said to be literature’s shortest story. It reads in full:
“When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”
In an 1996 interview with Ilan Stavans for the Massachusetts Review, Monterroso recalled some early reviews of “The Dinosaur”: “I still have the very first reviews of the book: critics hated it. Since that point on I began hearing complaints to the effect that it isn’t a short-story. My answer is: true, it isn’t a short story, it’s actually a novel.”
Brevity was, to say the least, an important concept for Monterroso. His essay “Fecundity” is included in The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It reads in full:
“Today I feel well, like a Balzac; I am finishing this line.”
In a 2002 interview with Carmen Boullosa published in Bomb magazine Roberto Bolaño made the hefty claim “I’m interested in Western literature and I’m fairly familiar with all of it.” He went on to say: “I’m also interested in American literature of the 1880s, especially Twain and Melville, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Whitman. As a teenager, I went through a phase when I only read Poe.” [. . .]
Bolaño also read the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. In Bolaño’s final interview he says he would have rather been Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade: “I would like to have been a homicide detective, much more than being a writer. I am absolutely sure of that. A string of homicides. I’d have been someone who could come back to the scene of the crime alone, by night and not be afraid of ghosts.”
Bolaño also loved Philip K. Dick. He wrote a poem about him, published in The Romantic Dogs. And in 2002 he participated in a published discussion with the writer Rodrigo Fresán, where both writers discuss the science fiction author. Bolaño calls Dick “a prophet.”
Now about that Special Sale . . . For the next week, all orders through the Melville House website are 20% off. And to compete with Amazon.com, all Melville House best-sellers—Every Man Dies Alone, The Confessions of Noa Weber, Shoplifting at American Apparel—are only $7.99 for the next week . . . Just put the books in your shopping cart and the correct price will show up . . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .