21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and available from Melville House Publishing.

This is Will’s second review in a row, so I’m not sure how much of an introduction he really needs . . . He’s a graduate of the University of Rochester, where he majored in Japanese and received a certificate in literary translation. I believe he’s also looking for a job in publishing . . .

Banana Yoshimoto is maybe the most popular female Japanese author whose works have been translated into English. She’s the author of seven books of essays and twelve novels, eight of which have been translated into English, including Kitchen and Goodbye Tsugumi. Michael Emmerich—who, as Will points out, is one of the great Japanese translators of our time—has translated most of these.

It’s been a while since we last reviewed a Melville House book, so this is a great time to point out that they do a ton of great stuff, both in translation and originally written in English, and their Melville International Crime series seems very cool, as does the Neversink Library collection. Also personally very thrilled to see all the Heinrich Boll reprints, although to be honest, I haven’t read any of these because I can’t decide which to start with . . .

Anyway, back to Yoshimoto. Here’s the opening of Will’s review of The Lake:

“The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.”

This is the first sentence of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Lake. I vaguely recall learning or reading somewhere some sort of creative writing related piece of wisdom—or maybe it’s just some advice, or simply someone’s particular philosophy. It might not even be very good advice, or a generally accepted piece of thought. It could be the most common idea in all fiction writing. I’m not sure. It’s just something I sort of remember coming across. (And now that I’ve demonstrated my impeccable credentials for book reviewing, let’s continue).

Anyway, the nugget of wisdom was that the first sentence of a novel should sum up the essence of the work to follow, to lay it all out on the table. It might not be obvious as to how that sentence relates to the following work, and of course the reader will probably forget it on the journey, but the first sentence, as important as it is, should tie the whole piece together in some way. And Yoshimoto does just that.

Although the one line summary on the back cover would summarize it a little differently (more on that later), The Lake is about Chihiro, an up-and-coming mural painter who was born out of wedlock, but by loving if unusual parents: her mother was a bar owner and her father a patron, and although they were in love and had a child together, they never actually got married. Her family life was happy, if not normal, but it was that abnormality that marked Chihiro as different her whole young adult life.

Click here to read the entire review.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.”

This is the first sentence of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Lake. I vaguely recall learning or reading somewhere some sort of creative writing related piece of wisdom—or maybe it’s just some advice, or simply someone’s particular philosophy. It might not even be very good advice, or a generally accepted piece of thought. It could be the most common idea in all fiction writing. I’m not sure. It’s just something I sort of remember coming across. (And now that I’ve demonstrated my impeccable credentials for book reviewing, let’s continue).

Anyway, the nugget of wisdom was that the first sentence of a novel should sum up the essence of the work to follow, to lay it all out on the table. It might not be obvious as to how that sentence relates to the following work, and of course the reader will probably forget it on the journey, but the first sentence, as important as it is, should tie the whole piece together in some way. And Yoshimoto does just that.

Although the one line summary on the back cover would summarize it a little differently (more on that later), The Lake is about Chihiro, an up-and-coming mural painter who was born out of wedlock, but by loving if unusual parents: her mother was a bar owner and her father a patron, and although they were in love and had a child together, they never actually got married. Her family life was happy, if not normal, but it was that abnormality that marked Chihiro as different her whole young adult life:

All my life, I cherished the possibility of escape. I worried that if I started going out with a guy and somehow botched things up and fell seriously in love, if we ended up having a splendid wedding in some hotel in town—or even worse, if I happened to get pregnant!—well, that would be the end of everything. So while my classmates thrilled over their puppy loves and fantasized about getting married, I held myself back. Before I did anything, I considered the possible consequences. And as soon as I graduated from high school, on the pretext of attending an art school in Tokyo, I made my getaway. I left home.

My body knew. It sensed the discrimination, subtle but real, all around me.

vq. Sure, she’s the daughter of a prominent local figure, but c’mon—he knocked up the “Mama-san” of a bar, right? That’s the kind of girl she is. The feeling oppressed me, squeezing all the more tightly because I knew it was only in this city, nowhere else, that my dad mattered.

vq. When I came to Tokyo and became an ordinary art school student, just like everyone else, I felt so free and light I thought I’d float up in the air.

After college, Chihiro’s mother becomes sick, and eventually dies. Sometime after that, she meets Nakajima. The two are remarkably alike, though it takes them weeks of smiling at each other across their windows to find out: they are both in their late twenties, neighbors, and they both have tragically lost their mother. They fall in love slowly, almost accidentally, because they are both, in their different ways, damaged from their respective traumas. The rest of The Lake follows Chihiro and Nakajima’s unusual relationship and life together, while Chihiro slowly starts to piece together the details of Nakajima’s particularly troubled past, and why it is so important, and painful, for Nakajima to visit some old friends at his old family lake house.

The details of Nakajima’s past are unveiled towards the very end of the book, but if you really need to know right away, you can unfortunately find it in the Amazon product description. Avoid reading that, if possible. It’s unfortunate, because the book is a wonderfully sweet tale about love in spite of a history of sorrow, about being on the cusp of adulthood and trying to find one’s future, although the mystery, if you can avoid the spoiler, is a pleasant, and poignant, surprise.

I’m willing to defend the choice, because although the reveal of Nakajima’s past would have been slightly more enjoyable with that element of surprise, that mystery is not really what the book is about, and it certainly doesn’t ruin the pleasures of reading this novel. Yoshimoto’s strength as a writer lies in her clear, unadorned prose; it is simple but effective, even elegant, brought into life in English by translator Michael Emmerich, who proves once again that he is one of, if not the, best Japanese translators working today. Chihiro is a lively, engaging narrator, likeable but not perfect—a genuine human being. Her humor and her sadness are palpable, and it’s a joy to watch her try to figure out her life. The Lake is a short, engaging novel, the kind where you want more to read not because it’s underdeveloped (though part of me wish there was more), but because it is so enjoyable to read. It’s not a particularly action-filled book, and there was a minor plot line that ends up fading away without resolution. I nonetheless found the novel engrossing throughout.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of the most translated contemporary Japanese authors, ever since her runaway bestseller Kitchen in the early 1990s, but it’s a testament to her skills as a writer that she’s been able to keep being published in English for almost twenty years now. The Lake is simply another example of her ability to write powerful, engaging, and accessible fiction.

10 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Approximately five minutes, the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards were announced at a special celebration at Idlewild Books in New York City. Hopefully the party is raging, and the winners are enjoying themselves . . .

Competition was pretty steep for this year’s awards. The poetry committee came to a consensus rather quickly, granting the award to Elena Fanailova for The Russian Version, translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

On the fiction side of things we debated and debated for weeks. There were easily four other titles that could’ve easily won this thing. Walser, Prieto, Aira were all very strong contenders. But in the end, we gave the award to Gail Hareven for The Confessions of Noa Weber, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu and published by Melville House Press.

You can download the official 2010 BTBA Winners Press Release by clicking there. And you can visit these links for overviews of The Confessions of Noa Weber and The Russian Version.

2 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

These two books arrived a couple weeks ago and are nearing the top of my reading list:

Every Man Dies Alone is one of three Hans Fallada books Melville House is bringing out this season. (The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? being the other two.) A mammoth book (although written in only twenty-four days!), Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of a working-class couple that resisted the Nazis. This is Melville House’s lead title for the spring, a book that they’ve been pushing as a sort of German Suite Francaise and lost masterpiece. Based on the relative success of his other novels — Little Man, What Now? was even made into a movie — it’s surprising this book wasn’t translated into English before now. A great find for Dennis and Valerie, and every indication points to this book taking off. And the production on this book is phenomenal: the end papers feature full color maps of Berlin, and included with the afterword are all the historical documents related to the “true story behind the novel.”

Gert Jonke’s Homage to Czerny made the 2009 Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist, which is one reason I’m very interested to read his Blinding Moment, which just came out from Ariadne Books. Ariadne Books is pretty press that specializes in Austrian literature. (In addition to Jonke’s book, I’m very excited about Kathrin Roggla’s we never sleep, which is due out later this spring.) Jonke’s book is a collection of four pieces—“The Head of George Frederick Handel,” “Catalogue d’oiseaux,” “Gentle Rage, or The Ear Machinist: A Theater Sonata,” and “Blinding Moment: A Novella.” According to the copy, he “takes the works of four composers (plus a universally loved saint) as the starting points of profound but often hilarious explorations of human struggle and triumph, of spiritual yearning and fulfillment.” In addition to Jonke’s pieces, Vincent Kling’s translator’s afterword looks really interesting. It’s a pretty substantial piece that places this book within the context of Jonke’s entire career.

Hopefully we’ll have full reviews of both of these titles online within the next month or so.

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

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



Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis. (Chile, Melville House)

For the third straight day we’re featuring a Chilean author from the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, although the author’s country of birth might be the only similarity between Bolano’s novels and Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Just in terms of length, 2666 is by far the longest novel of the bunch, whereas Bonsai clocks in at 83 very white-space heavy pages.

Which isn’t to say that this novel is “slight,” or that it lacks the depth of longer novels. The thing that first struck me about this novel is how sweeping Zambra’s short, perfectly crafted chapters can be. Actually, I take that back. The thing that first caught my attention was this fantastic opening 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:

So there. That takes care of the plot and suspense about how the novella ends . . . Although obviously it doesn’t. The “middle” of books is what’s often the most fascinating, and that’s absolutely true of Bonsai.

In a way, the book is constructed like a bonsai, with little tufts of story that connect in a deeper, trunk-like way. For instance, the way we (and Julio) learn of Emilia’s death through a third person who is connected to Emilia and only tangentially to Julio leads to a very moving scene that is also quite intricate.

And Zambra’s playful tone is very compelling, and the quasi-metafictional moment in the middle of the novel. Julio, who has already broken up with Emilia and is with a new girlfriend, interviews for a job transcribing a famous author’s novel. He tells his girlfriend that he got it, only to find out the next morning that the project went to someone else. Rather than admit this, he starts going to a park every day and frantically writes a novel called “Bonsai,” which he passes off as the work of the famous novelist.

To Maria: It’s the greatest test for a writer. In Bonsai almost nothing happens, the plot could be told in two paragraphs, a story that perhaps is not that good.

And what are they called?

The characters? Gazmuri didn’t name them. He says it’s better, and I agree: they are He and She, Huacho and Pochocha, John and Jane Doe, they don’t have names and maybe they don’t have faces either. The protagonist is a king or beggar, it’s all the same. A king or beggar that lets go of the only woman he ever truly loved.

And he learned to speak Japanese?

They met in a Japanese class. The truth is that I don’t know yet, I think that’s in the second notebook.

Bonsai is a perfect example of what Melville House is doing with their Contemporary Art of the Novella Series. Zambra started his writing career as a poet, and after publishing two collections, started a book that “little by little, capriciously, the text took on the form of a novella or long story or bonsai-book.” Not many publishers are willing to publishing books of this length, preferring longer novels, or a novella plus stories (which they’ll then claim doesn’t sell), which is sort of sad, since this book is the exact length it needs to be and stands well on its own.

But thanks to Melville House and what they did with their “classic” novella series—publishing “known” authors and creating an attractive “set” of books—they’re now able to sucessfully introduce American readers to authors like Zambra (or Kevin Vennemann, or Benoit Duteurtre).

27 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Love German Books is a very interesting interview with Ross Benjamin about his translation of Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew for the Melville House Art of the Contemporary Novella series.

Ross, tell us about the book . . .

It’s an account of a pogrom against a Jewish family by their neighbors, who had been their longtime friends, in a fictitious village called Jedenew near the Polish-Lithuanian border during the German invasion. This horrific incident is recounted in the first-person plural — “we” — and the group of characters indicated by this pronoun expands and contracts at various points, but the point-of-view of these passages is aligned with a single female protagonist who remains nameless. During the onslaught, she and her sister Anna hide in their unfinished treehouse in the woods, where they witness the destruction of their home. Having lost their loved ones, they recall the events of their truncated childhood and especially stories that have been told to them by their father and their older brother. Different voices, tales, and memories interweave as the narrative moves forward and backward in time, the scenes and speakers often shifting unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence. The novel never departs from the present tense, even when this means violating grammatical convention. The effect is a sense of simultaneity that heightens the harrowing loss at the heart of the novel.

[. . .]

You’ve kept the very difficult grammatical structure (all present tense, confusing sentence structure) more or less untouched, as far as I can tell. Were you tempted to take a more interventionist approach? If not, why not?

I felt strongly that the exclusive use of the present tense was an essential feature of the novel, so I was never tempted to alter it. Even when German grammar would usually require another tense, whether past, future, or indirect discourse, the novelist stayed in the present, and if this was at times awkward in the original, the awkwardness was clearly a deliberate effect. So I reproduced this to the best of my abilities in the translation. Of course, this posed a challenge. Overall, I had the impression that the German language was more conducive to Vennemann’s technique than English, for both the historical present and the ability to refer to future events in the present tense are available, conventional options in German more often than in English. So at times something that was only somewhat jarring in the original would be more intensely jarring in English. But I thought this still reflected the author’s aesthetic better than to restore grammatical fluidity and familiarity would have. Though I tried to keep the level of estrangement close to that of the original, at times some degree of enhanced awkwardness in the English version was inescapable. But since the device was used as a grammatical Verfremdungseffekt in the German version, this felt justified. As for the complexity of the syntax, some degree of confusion is endemic to the novel. Again, such intricate, long sentences are less unusual in German than in English, but my rationale for retaining them was similar to my approach to tense. The labyrinthine nature of the sentences in the original was intentionally disorienting, and to efface this by composing more easily readable sentences would have been to dispense with a key aspect of the experience of this novel.

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