26 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I first read Almost Never by Daniel Sada, I thought it was a lock to be a finalist for the 2013 BTBA. It’s a strange book that’s basically 328 pages of foreplay ending with three pages of this:

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Ecstasy-sex. Sinking-in-sex. Sex that shapes. Sex that sparkles.

Yes, once again I’ve decided to highlight a sex book that I thought would make the BTBA longlist.



But Almost Never is more than a book about a man obsessed with sex—it’s a stylistic masterpiece that’s incredibly intricate, unlike anything I’ve read, and exquisitely translated by Katherine Silver.

I don’t have a lot of time to write all the things I’d like to say about this book, but I do want to point out my favorite part of the opening chapter:

Now comes a description of Demetrio’s job: his workday went from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon, sometimes six, more infrequently seven.

That’s it. Nothing about what he actually does (at this point), just the time he spends there. Which is so wonderfully telling for this particular character.

Quickly: Sada is considered by many to be one of the greatest contemporary writers to come out of Mexico, was praised by Bolaño, and his novel Porque Parece Mentira la Verdad Nunca se Sabe is considered to be untranslatable. (According to Rachel Nolan of the New York Times it really does sound pretty daunting, what with its “650 pages, 90 characters and use of archaic metric forms like alexandrines, hendecasyllables and octosyllables.”)

Katherine Silver actually received an NEA Translation Fellowship to work on more Sada, so hopefully there will be additional books of his to consider for future BTBA awards . . .

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Aside from the Borgesian idea of a book that details the literal present, there is not a Borgesian or magic realist moment in this recent novel from Latin America. Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya have done a good job of eradicating the myth that literature from south of the border is solely populated by spirits and two hundred year old patriarchs, but another brand of fiction has cropped up in its place: narco-literature. Down the Rabbit Hole may qualify as such, though only in the sense that it takes place largely in the secluded palace of Yolcaut, Tochtli’s paranoid criminal-emperor father. Though this is the setting, and though there are mentions of violence, they are filtered through the lens of a small child who relays events in a simplistic manner, allowing the reader a glimpse into the life of a narco unburdened by the machismo voice of a typical narrator.

This is not to suggest that Down the Rabbit Hole lacks in machismo. There are few women in the book save for the “mute” servants and prostitutes who exist on the outskirts of Tochtli’s view. More than once Tochtli places male behavior into the simple polarities of macho and faggot. To be macho is to take things “like a man”; to cry at the sight of two animals being killed is to be a “faggot.” This dichotomy, effortlessly understood and accepted as law by a child, does not offend the reader as, they are constantly reminded, these are the thoughts of an unusual storyteller in an unusual situation. By employing a child to tell this story, Villalobos allows his readers to accept the violence, sex, and dirty dealings that exist on the periphery of Tochtli’s obsessions: hats (he has a vast collection), samurais, and Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, which he longs to add to his personal zoo. Just as the reader is ready to accept these as the quirky, charming interests of a young boy, Tochtli reveals his other obsession: differing methods of turning people into corpses (he mostly admires the French for their guillotines). Tochtli’s narration gives the reader a view into an ugly world without the usual genre gimmicks of the narco-novel or police procedural. The effect is infinitely more unsettling.

I must admit I had reservations about Down the Rabbit Hole. I have tired of child narrators. This, however, is miles away from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Here we have a naive view of a terrifying world where few are trusted and everyone is a potential traitor; here we have innocence on the verge of corruption.

The slim number of pages aids in the success of the book; a longer version might have seen the concept grow tiresome. But no moment of the novel takes the reader out of its world and the rising action and denouement that might have felt tacked on to a lesser novel feel natural here. At just 70 pages, Down the Rabbit Hole strikes quick, leaving a strong impression.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which is translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and available from FSG.

This is a book I first heard about a while back when the innovative and amazing And Other Stories announced that they’d be bringing it out in the UK. Really glad that it found a U.S. publisher, and given FSG’s recent publications of Spanish-language literature—books by Andres Neuman, Alejandro Zambra, Roberto Bolaño—this fits right in.

Here’s the opening of Vince’s review:

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

“Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.”

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Click here to read the entire piece.

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of FSG’s Work in Progress weekly newsletter (which is maybe the best publisher newsletter out there), has an interview with Rosalind Harvey, co-translator with Anne McLean of Oblivion by Hector Abad and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, and solo translator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which just came out from FSG (and came out from And Other Stories last year).

Down the Rabbit Hole is fascinating for several reasons, not least because it’s told from the perspective of a child. How did that affect the experience of translating the book?

For me the voice is the most important aspect of translation (and literature in general, I think), whether it’s a child or an adult narrator. When the voice is clear and strong and believable enough to remain in your mind, that’s your starting point. I read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but mainly I was just listening out for Tochtli’s voice and trying to recreate it in English. [. . .]

Are you generally a reader of books in translation, either from Spanish or from other languages? How do other books in translation inform your own work, if at all? Are there any translators you particularly admire?

I do read quite a lot in translation; I try to read books written in Spanish in the original, and translated books I have admired in the last year or so include All The Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire, and a Swedish thriller called Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman, translated by Joan Tate. Obviously I admire Anne McLean a great deal and she taught me a lot about how to translate, and I also admire Suzanne Jill Levine for her creativity and humor (she has a great book about translating Cabrera Infante which I recommend), and the great Edith Grossman is incomparable.

It’s generally acknowledged that literature translated into English gets fairly bypassed by readers. Do you agree? What do you think can be done (or is already being done) to bring translations further toward the forefront? Why is doing so important?

Yes, it does happen but only because they aren’t given access to it! Things are looking up though—I know for a fact that there are interested and varied audiences for translation after having done three translation-related events this year in the UK, which were all very popular and elicited some really interesting responses. I think we need to translate and publish more of a range of writing: good literature is wonderful, but difficult or avant-garde work is not for everyone and so I’d like to see more Estonian chick lit, Indonesian thrillers or Bolivian erotica. People read that stuff as long as it’s good, it doesn’t matter where it’s from, so bring it on! As a reader I would say that reading translation is no more or less important than reading a literature, but as a translator I guess I say that reading translations can give you a broader vision of the world and of people and emotions, making you more aware of the huge differences but also similarities between people. Good literature from anywhere can do that.

On a related note, why is translation important to you, personally? What delights you about the work you do?

Translation is important to me as someone who’s always loved words, language, and wordplay in particular. I love punning, and playing around with words, and I always have ever since I learned to speak. When I was younger I want to be a writer, and translation is a form of writing. It is also often said that it’s the closest form of reading, and I love the chance my work gives me to really get inside a text, as well as getting inside a character’s head, and to be intimately involved with the creation of a book.

Here the complete interview here.

13 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Dehiscent: in botany, the spontaneous rupture of a plant structure at maturity to release seeds; in medicine, the rupture of a wound with much discharge.

In this strong, propulsive collection of poems translator Forrest Gander uses dehiscent for the Spanish word diesminandose in one poem, and in the title of a second for ensimismada. López Colomé’s images draw on the dual meaning of the English word. The botanical one with the positive pitch of natural propagation of a species (picture a milk pod releasing its silk parachuted seeds) occurs for example in poems that reference the tibuchina flower and almonds, and with images of bees filled with pollen, silk flowers and blooming real ones (“My Life’s Portrait”). López Colomé though is not a “nature poet.” The substance of the poems are also wedded to the medical, colored by the idea that pain, pus, blood are pouring out of a wound. Thematically López Colomé touches on both, related concepts over and over again. The language also performs a verbal dehiscence, as is announced in the poem “Heart’s Core”:

. . . .
But
a certain sentence
perfectly measured,
a shard, black onyx dart,
keeps hitting the target inside me
with all its sinister, atomic
plunk.
How curious that it feels less like prickling than throbbing.
that between words
we find the heart’s core,
not merely an account of it.
there, where pain isn’t forgotten.
There, where memory
radiates,
candescent:
in signal strength enduring
with no need
to plead its case.
. . .

You know that you are in the hands of a master who has control over language. Echoes of the cultural past (“a shard, black onyx dart”), religious imagery allusively rendered (“the heart” in its iconographic Latin American role) are interwoven with the contemporary “atomic” and the technologically yoked reference to light, “candescent.” Thematically the poet is addressing the realities of pain at the heart’s core, but which can only be pointed to “between words . . . not merely an account of it.”

While this poem relies strongly on inner feelings that seem intimate, many of the other poems tell about states of emotion/being at a more distant remove. In this next poem the reader also encounters the use of images and language drawn from the poet’s reality. From the three part poem “My Life’s Portrait,” the second section, WATERWORM AGAINST A BLUE BACKGROUND:

A radiant
eight year old
on her way from the possible
to the shameful.

Reinvented
in the guise of a good girl
who learns to not be herself,
to sit still, all but immobile,
to adopt a pose
from this moment on
The expression on her face, fabulous.

A dress of purple velvet
with a lacy collar;
socks conscientiously folded down
to the top of the ankle
new patent leather shoes.
But her hands once again
escape the artist . . .

They reach into the future.
And they oblige
everything else to pose.
As she would pose and stare at that garden
with its interminable whirlwind
and the dizziness would intensify
until she tumbled into the grass
and discovered
that when her body wasn’t spinning around,
the stars themselves were circling;
then the telescopes in her eyes
would gradually funnel
away the delirium bit by bit . . .
Because I refused to be
a still life,
I lost the only grip I had.

The very cord that set me free
was twisted around my neck
a transparent slipknot
choking me
while fireflies
flickered
between the bars of my fingers
as I made
a fist.

The speaker ruminates on the ruptures in life; it starts with the promise of seemingly unlimited possibilities reduced on the one hand by societal expectations, and on the other hand the challenges of human existence. While the picture which emerges is dim—flickering fireflies seen through bars of fingers curving into a fist—it is not, from the adult speaker’s perspective, without humor or glimpses of happiness, the “fabulous” expression on the child’s face, the twirling of an eight year old in a garden.

This next poem continues with the child grown into adulthood. The “torment” emerges at the end, in the acorns grown into a choiring grove, a potentially poetic cliché that actually terrorizes. Gander interprets this in his introduction as an allusion to the cancer which López Colomé dealt while writing many of these poems.

“Tormented”

Enormous solids were falling
from who knows what heights,
who knows what places.
I trembled,
and in my mouth
an inky taste. Ready.

Hail, maybe
enormous kernels of ice;
coming down,
with a scandalous impact,
didn’t bury me, terrorized,
under the covers.
It didn’t happen, it wasn’t that.

A below-zero temperature
drove into the soft center of my bones.
A truly searing cold.

Nothing to do with monsters came to pass.
Nothing to do with endless distance.
Nothing to do with brutalities.
Only the agony of acorns.
Only a cycle that completes itself
every few years
and transforms into a tropical forest
a choiring oak grove.

Which is my terror.

In one of the longer poems “Dehiscent, Enraptured Invention” López Colomé brings another key concern of hers, the pull toward some spiritual reality, although not one tied to any traditional religious tradition.

To be able to speak

without punctuation

jubilant infinite moment
moment jubilant infinite
infinite moment jubilant
gibberish
and as if that weren’t enough
to burn and sing
a solipsist
heard
by no one
beyond
the weird world’s
distant core . . .

and what follows. There is an inner light here, with words as fuel, language in-itself pouring outward:

To be able to speak

without contrivance,
filigrees
underlinings or cursives

supreme instant
of unbounded
pleasure
at the center of an immensity
without any outside pressure
knowing that the vital forces
peel away from muscle easily
and drift off
and you drown
and it doesn’t matter
since you’re protected
enraptured
. . .

The first poem cited above, “Heart’s Core,” includes that image of a black onyx arrow piercing the heart, a contemporary version of ecstasy of St. Theresa captured once in Bernini’s sculpture. Here though the angel and long arrow are language itself. López Colomé makes it clear in her “Afterward” to this collection that her religious upbringing included exposure to religious poetry. She recalls that the words, the sound and movement and moving of the hearer, were her revelation, not that of a god’s visitation. As a child she confessed, “When I pray, I talk to God, but He doesn’t talk to me.” To which her confessor counseled, “Pray in your own words.” This directive she says gave her “a whole new imago mundi; a capacity to describe perceptions and emotions in a fresh way, with intimate verbs.” In adolescence she realized that “you could save the right words just to talk to yourself, without the Most Holy watching over your shoulder . . . a dialogue with my personal penumbra.” López Colomé is a religious skeptic, but definitely a fideist in the power of the Words.

Finally, the metaphor of dehiscence strikes me as a great way to understand the project of translation. The idea that a text, especially in the concentrated form of poetry, bursts out into multiple meanings in its original language, then in a translated text, and further in the two held in the tension of facing poems in Spanish and English. In López Colomé’s and Gander’s hands this bursting sometimes is propagative, at other times a lancing of wounds.

I have on my bookshelf at least five different approaches to that proto-text of vernacular poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which translators try to match the terza rima structure, others the plain meaning of the text, with all sorts of ground in between. Gander, an accomplished poet (essayist and novelist) in his own right and translator of many Spanish language writers, honors the voice and tone of López Colomé. If you pick up one of Gander’s several collections you would encounter a different voice, with his own unique concerns. Yet his approach is one of a poet with word choices that represent the meaning of the original, not the plain translation. Some of the changes are practical—both inventive and of a more mechanical, problem solving nature. The poem ‘Almendra’is in English titled ‘Almond.’ In the last stanza of the poem López Colomé draws attention to the actual word “almendra,”:

Consonantes trituridas        A vowel and two consonants
sin gastar savia en balde    worth the spit it takes
se repiten, se digieren         to chew them, repeat, and digest
se repiten sin cesar             them one after another
ene dé erre ene dé erre      ah el em ah el em
n d r  n d r                            alm alm

The translator has the challenge in a poem that uses in Spanish three consonants (consonantes trituridas) n, d, and r, which of course do not occur in the English translation, the word almond. So the first line quoted above keeps the intent but changes the literal wording, to a vowel and two consonants, which in “almond” are alm in Gander’s translation. Note here as well Gander’s mastery of Spanish colloquial speech in translating the second line to an English saying (not) “worth the spit it takes.”

Gander is able to take the project one step further, for example, in “Tormented,” when he translates “Un verdadero calor frio” not into “A truly/really hot cold,” but instead into the intended, equivalent meaning in English, “A truly searing cold.” Perhaps another English word could have been used in the place of searing, but I am hard-pressed to come up with any better.

Then there is a wholly different level of the translator’s engagement and interpretation. With true artistry Gander takes a series in Spanish “lagrimas, anhelos, nadieras” and turns it into “tears, longing, and ratty nothings.” Ratty: that’s a nice touch, as is the translation of “Aparacete tal cual, / resono” into (the Gander added italics and explanation mark) “Show yourself!

In a world where what is truly of value received attention, López Colomé and Gander would be soon going on tour to read from this collection in the same range of venues that a popular rock group might appear. As it is, I urge anyone who wants to read moving poetry that unfolds with multiple re-readings to buy this book, and then to buy a second and third copy to put into others’ hands.

21 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kaitlyn Brady on Jorge Volpi’s In Spite of the Dark Silence, which is translated from the Spanish by Olivia Maciel and available from Swan Isle Press.

Kaitlyn was in my “Introduction to Literary Publishing/Open Letter Internship” class last semester, which included an assignment to write a book review of a work in translation. Kaitlyn’s in my “Translation and World Literature” class this semester, so expect to read another of her reviews in the not-too-distant future . . .

This is the third book of Jorge’s to be translated and published in English. Scribner did In Search of Klingsor, a while back, and one of our first titles was Season of Ash. As Kaitlyn mentions in the review, Jorge is mostly associated with the “Crack Movement,” which was founded by a group of friends and resulted in this manifesto and a number of interesting works. (The most recent one to be translated into English is Eloy Urroz’s Friction.)

Here’s the opening of Kaitlyn’s review:

With In Spite of the Dark Silence, Jorge Volpi puts a new spin on a classic tale of obsession, following the fictional narrator who is consumed with his research of actual Mexican poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta. The fictionalized biography, in its slightly bizarre nature, weaves the narrator’s research of Cuesta with the downward spiral of his personal life, and will quickly envelop its readers, leaving them with memorable lyrical prose and fragmented sentence structures.

Jorge Volpi is one of the founders of the Crack Movement, a literary movement in Mexico that aimed to break from the cynical, superficial, and outdated movements of the past. The members wished to rupture the contemporary literary conventions of Latin America, such as the expected “magical realism,” creating their own style, and encouraging others to do so as well. Their works reflect a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the progress of civilization and the modern societal systems, which they contrast with the infinite possibilities inherent in fiction. In Spite of Dark Silence is one of the predecessors of this movement.

“His name was Jorge, like mine, and for that his life hurts me twice,” opens Volpi, as the narrator introduces his growing obsession with Jorge Cuesta. Cuesta, an actual Mexican figure, was a member of Los Contemporánoes, a Mexican literary movement in the twentieth century, who eventually committed suicide in a mental ward. His writing is both overtly and subtly woven into Volpi’s narrative as Jorge compulsively researches the poet, diving deeper and deeper into his life and oeuvre, and blurring the boundaries between the two Jorges.

Click here to read the full piece.

21 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With In Spite of the Dark Silence, Jorge Volpi puts a new spin on a classic tale of obsession, following the fictional narrator who is consumed with his research of actual Mexican poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta. The fictionalized biography, in its slightly bizarre nature, weaves the narrator’s research of Cuesta with the downward spiral of his personal life, and will quickly envelop its readers, leaving them with memorable lyrical prose and fragmented sentence structures.

Jorge Volpi is one of the founders of the Crack Movement, a literary movement in Mexico that aimed to break from the cynical, superficial, and outdated movements of the past. The members wished to rupture the contemporary literary conventions of Latin America, such as the expected “magical realism,” creating their own style, and encouraging others to do so as well. Their works reflect a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the progress of civilization and the modern societal systems, which they contrast with the infinite possibilities inherent in fiction. In Spite of Dark Silence is one of the predecessors of this movement.

“His name was Jorge, like mine, and for that his life hurts me twice,” opens Volpi, as the narrator introduces his growing obsession with Jorge Cuesta. Cuesta, an actual Mexican figure, was a member of Los Contemporánoes, a Mexican literary movement in the twentieth century, who eventually committed suicide in a mental ward. His writing is both overtly and subtly woven into Volpi’s narrative as Jorge compulsively researches the poet, diving deeper and deeper into his life and oeuvre, and blurring the boundaries between the two Jorges. Narrator Jorge happens to encounter the story of Cuesta’s self-castration and subsequent suicide, and finds himself inexplicably drawn to the tragic story. Despite his wife’s protests, the narrator’s obsession with Cuesta increases as he strives to replicate his experiments and ideals. Eventually quitting his job and abandoning his marriage, the narrator is doomed to follow in his idol’s footsteps—he admits, “If I could not rescue my own life, at least I would rescue his.”

This novel, as a precursor to the Crack Movement, features a light displacement of syntax, which will later be exaggerated. This effect is in part due to fragmented lines from Cuesta incorporated into the narrative, as well as the inclusion of whole letters and excerpts of his poetry. The disjointed style forces us to share the madness of Jorge, as his life intertwines with Cuesta’s. When Jorge attempts to come to terms with his obsession, Volpi writes,

I prefer my own fragmented history, unserviceable, hypocritical, vain, the futility of my effort, my sad relationship with Alma, my one and unrepeatable Alma, and a destiny that cannot aggrandize me, that in no way resembles Cuesta’s passion, that is as worthless as anyone else’s, but that is enough to cry and finish.

This slightly confusing sentence openly imitates his “fragmented” mind, while directly referencing Cuesta. We’re placed in his shoes, feeling overwhelmed and lost. In addition to the disjointed style, Volpi also presents us with lyrical poetry blended with his prose, writing, “I touched the wet clay, amazed by the eloquence of the revelation: My sight diffused on the space is space itself.” The latter half of this phrase is actually an excerpt from Cuesta’s poetry, demonstrating how Volpi incorporates Cuesta’s writing into his own. With this partially incomprehensible half-prose, half-poetry sentence, we share the narrator’s confusion and his obsession, as Cuesta begins to invade his every thought and feeling.

Olivia Maciel, the translator, adeptly maintains this style indicative of Volpi and the Crack Movement as well as writes an eye-opening Afterword on these subjects. She explains how “Jorge Volpi, along with other members of the Crack literary movement, begins a new conversation with the luminous and ever rare transubstantial world.”

In Spite of the Dark Silence is hauntingly arresting, dragging the reader into the downward spiral of its narrator and subject. At times we’re unsure if we’re reading something from the perspective of Jorge the narrator or Jorge Cuesta, making for a delightfully puzzling read. After being sucked into the quest of the narrator, we can predict how history will repeat itself, while hoping that it will not. In perhaps what could be described as a strange, twisted love story, In Spite of the Dark Silence questions passion, love, relationships, and obsession, illustrating just how far one will go.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, with an introduction from Bruce Sterling. This will be officially available from Small Beer Press is bringing this out in late-January, but it can be preordered here.

Here’s the description from Small Beer’s website:

This huge anthology of more than thirty all-original Mexican science fiction and fantasy features ghost stories, supernatural folktales, alien incursions, and apocalyptic narratives, as well as science-based chronicles of highly unusual mental states in which the borders of fantasy and reality reach unprecedented levels of ambiguity. Stereotypes of Mexican identity are explored and transcended by the thoroughly cosmopolitan consciousnesses underlying these works. It is a landmark of contemporary North American fiction that deserves a wide readership.

And we actually ran a review of this by Sara Cohen back near Halloween. (Too fitting, no?) Here’s what she had to say about the two stories that you can read here.

“Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.

You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:

“Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.”

“The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.

In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.

Again, click here for the complete preview, and click here for Sara’s review. And then, if you like what you read, buy the book via Small Beer’s website.

All of the past RTN featured titles can be found here.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen about Three Messages and a Warning, an anthology of Mexican short stories of the fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris Brown and forthcoming from Small Beer Press.

Sara “Number Four” Cohen was one of our summer interns, who attends the University of Rochester where she’s majoring in English and singing lots of showtunes.

She wasn’t a huge fan of this collection as a whole, but there were a number of pieces that she really enjoyed. Here’s the opening of her review, along with one example of the “Very Good” stories included:

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

Click here to read the full review.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.

If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:

Category One: The Very Good.

1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.

In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME-OUT DAY.”

2. “Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.

You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:

Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.

3. “Nereid Future,” by Gabriela Damián Miravete.

Imagine a modern, Mexican version of Margaret Oliphant’s short story from 1869, The Library Window and you’ll arrive at “Nereid Future.” The story, told in the second person, is about a girl who falls in love with a long-dead author through his books. The narrative gets increasingly meta as the girl begins to believe that the author loves her back. Intertextuality and female identity earn the spotlight in this short story, which contains one of those perfect endings where you should have seen it coming from the start, but still catches you by surprise.

4. “The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.

In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.

5. “Variations on a Theme by Coleridge,” by Alberto Chimal.

Three Messages includes plenty of short-short stories; this is my favorite example, a page-and-a-half-long gem. It begins, “I got a call. It was me, calling from a phone I lost the year before. I asked myself where I had found the phone. I answered myself that it was in such and such cafeteria that I couldn’t remember anymore.” The story gets increasingly meta and hilarious, drawing its premise from the capabilities of modern technology, its humor from repetition and its pathos from the ways we judge ourselves.

Other favorites: “Lions” by Bernardo Fernández, “Wittigenstein’s Umbrella” by Óscar de la Borbolla, “Mr. Strogoff” by Guillermo Samperio.

Category Two: The Mediocre.

Most of the book falls into this category: stories that build up but go nowhere (“The Guest”); stories that you swear you’ve read before (“Three Messages and a Warning in the Same E-mail”); stories with one original gimmick, a clever premise or punch line that amuses without earning long-term appreciation (“A Pile of Bland Desserts”, “Wolves”); even a few pieces that don’t fully cross the cultural divide (“The Nahual Offering”).

These are not awful stories. I enjoyed reading some of them. But when I forget they existed in a week or two, I won’t feel the loss.

Category Three: The Ugly.

In my opinion the worst of the collection (besides that very random poem, “Mannequin”) are the stories that are unbearably trite, the stories that fit a shallow American understanding of Mexican culture to a T. I’m speaking mostly of the first story in the collection, “Today, You Walk Along a Narrow Path,” a tale about Día de los Muertos with the most predictable “surprise” ending in the entire book. There are others that fit this category, of course . . . but the line between “mediocre” and “ugly” seems awfully thin in my mind, so I think I’ll let future readers sort out those stories on their own.

5 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Scott Esposito’s been on about Daniel Sada for a while now, and I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about his work, especially the “Joycean,” “Rabelaisian,” novel Almost Never, which wont he prestigious Herralde Prize for Fiction, and which Graywolf is bringing in April in Katherine Silver’s translation. Yes, April. 2012.

Well, to my grand surprise, a galley arrived here this morning:

Here’s a description:

This Rabelaisian tale of lust and longing in the drier precincts of postwar Mexico introduces one of Latin America’s most admired writers to the English-speaking world.

Demetrio Sordo is an agronomist who passes his days in a dull but remunerative job at a ranch near Oaxaca. It is 1945, World War II has just ended, but those bloody events have had no impact on a country that is only on the cusp of industrializing. One day, more bored than usual, Demetrio visits a bordello in search of a libidinous solution to his malaise. There he begins an all-consuming and, all things considered, perfectly satisfying relationship with a prostitute named Mireya.

A letter from his mother interrupts Demetrio’s debauched idyll: she asks him to return home to northern Mexico to accompany her to a wedding in a small town on the edge of the desert. Much to his mother’s delight, he meets the beautiful and virginal Renata and quickly falls in love—a most proper kind of love.

Back in Oaxaca, Demetrio is torn, the poor cad. Naturally he tries to maintain both relationships, continuing to frolic with Mireya and beginning a chaste correspondence with Renata. But Mireya has problems of her own—boredom is not among them—and concocts a story that she hopes will help her escape from the bordello and compel Demetrio to marry her. Almost Never is a brilliant send-up of Latin American machismo that also evokes a Mexico on the verge of dramatic change.

But what’s really exciting about this—and the reason why I’m going to read this as soon as I’ve fulfilled all my other reading obligations—is the prose itself. Check the opening:

Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied, ambiguous sex, as a game that baffles then enlightens then baffles again; pretense-sex, see-through-sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life lived. Conjectures cut short during a walk on a pale afternoon. Block after block, ascending, then descending. A strain in the step as well as the mind. The subject was one Demetrio Sordo, tall and thin, almost thirty, fond of the countryside wehre he plied his trade with a modicum of pleasure, but for recreation: what thrills? Nightly games of dominoes in seedy dives, and those strolls—few and quite dull—of a mere mile or two; or a cup of coffee in the evening, always solitary and perfectly pointless; or the penning of letters to known but already ghostly beings. Hence a rut, and—what should he do?: think, already anticipating certainties and doubts: lots of naysaying, and more reshuffling, all of which helped him find the spark he’d been lacking without taxing his brain on that overcast afternoon. Sex was the most obvious option, but the trick would be to do it every twenty-four hours. If only! A worthy disbursement, indeed. So that very night the agronomist went looking for a brothel.

You can pre-order your copy now . . . Also worth noting that this is part of Graywolf’s Lannan Translation Series, a collection of books in translation sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. This series includes Per Petterson, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Bernardo Atxaga, and many others.

14 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Black Minutes by Martin Solares, translated by translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker

Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico
Publisher: Grove
Pages: 434

Why This Book Should Win: The judges gave the first Best Translated Book Award to an awesome book called Tranquility by Attila Bartis, despite the fact that it was up against that behemoth 2666, and everyone knows that 2666 is the greatest book published ever, to say nothing of the year 2008. (Really, it is. I should know. I wrote it.)

As may be surmised from the above paragraph, this is the second entry in the WTBSW series from beyond the grave. This time it’s from The Late Roberto Bolano.

Needless to say, a lot of people were disappointed that the judges opted for the Bartis, so here’s their chance to give the award to a hyper-noirish, dark, convoluted, paranoid, freaky book about the Mexican drug war, in many ways similar to 2666 (and in many ways nothing like my master opus at all).

The Black Minutes tells a pretty gripping story about murder in 1970s, northern Mexico providing a kind of pre-war look at a land that is now dominated by huge narco-cartels. Like many good noirs are, it’s framed around the one cop who wants to do an honest job, named Cabrera. As as English-language translator Natasha Wimmer wrote in The Nation:

It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what . . . we are supposed to publish or not publish. . . . You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.

We soon find that the story of the honest cop is just the beginning, as about 1/3 of the way in Solares abruptly shifts to a story-within-a-story about Cabrera’s predecessor on the case, which makes the plot-line even more convoluted, the characters even more numerous, and everything that much more freakily connected.

So in sum, The Black Minutes is a big, wooly, meaty neo-noir with plenty of sex, guns, violence, death, and of course lots and lots of politics. It’s a chance to give the award to a Mexican drug war book in light of the fact that the judges dissed my book 2666, even as the Bartis was pretty freakin awesome.

2 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 13 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 we’re featuring Mexican author Antonio Ortuno, whose “Small Mouth, Thin Lips” was translated by Tanya Huntington Hyde.



During our Twitter Party the other day, Ezra Fitz mentioned that one of Francisco Goldman’s favorite pieces from the issue was Antonio Ortuno’s “Small Mouth, Thin Lips” . . . which was one I hadn’t gotten to yet. (Admission of honesty: I still have three stories left to read. Which I will do on the plane ride home tonight. That and/or watch Cavs fans burn down Cleveland.)

Anyway, at the airport yesterday morning (where at 6am, approximately half of Rochester’s residents were waiting in line for security), I finally had a chance to read this story, which is now one of my favorites as well. (

There are two structural components to this piece: letters from the imprisoned Ricardo Bach to his jailor, and the internal thoughts of his jailor upon reading these letters. The back-and-forth is creepy and interesting, especially in the Doctor’s fears of being manipulated. (And clone orgy!) But this is one of those stories that is better experienced than explained, so here’s a (necessarily long) excerpt from near the beginning:

17 May

The first sign of Bach’s hypocrisy was his pathetic reference to Gustavo López. A real man would not have acted as grateful as a puppy upon receiving the enemy’s attentions or friendship. Thus, from the start, I had the advantage of knowing the utmost depths of the prisoner’s mind: he is a lamb in search of affection. His intention has been to portray himself as docile and confused, while at the same time vindicating his militancy, as if such partisanship did not require the kind of virility he seems incapable of showing.

Bach is fair-skinned. His mouth is small and his lips, thin. He composes certain gestures of helplessness, shielded by the two deep rings under his eyes, which have moved more than one warder to pity. I suspect they are eager to sodomize him, but the security camera and the guards I have standing watch have thwarted this. Dressed in a prisoner’s uniform and without any hair gel available, Bach has had to come up with ways to maintain that genteel veneer he seems so proud of. The tailored suits, the tortoiseshell comb and the polished shoes have been replaced by overalls and work boots, and the characteristic short mane from his portraits has given way to a crew cut.

He welcomes me with gleeful gesticulations and shadows me like a lapdog, offering me a seat with a lordly and effeminate gesture that I find humiliating: as if I were an old lady being waited on. He sits down on the cell’s straw mattress and smokes the cigarettes I have provided with childlike zest.

His answers are precise. He has turned out to be so thorough that I find myself reining him in. Gustavo López, back when I treated him, would let the cinder of his tobacco fall to the ground, and his greatest show of hygiene consisted of reuniting it by stomping out the butt with his shoe. Bach makes an effort, on the other hand, to keep the floor of his cell spotless and has procured (perhaps via some warder who has grown fond of his winking grey eyes) a broom, a dustpan and a basket he uses to rid himself of every last molecule of ash.

I have visited him three times. His courtesy is so intensely elaborate, I have begun to entertain the theory that he is mocking us. How else to explain the atrocious ‘Ode to My Jailer’s Phallus’ that he handed in together with his first report and that I have resisted including in this notebook?

On the other hand, Bach seems to possess an endless supply of items that are difficult for others to come by. His cot is covered by a wool blanket, instead of a urine-soaked sheet. Every time I hand him pen and paper, he stores them with joyous gestures next to other provisions he keeps in a lacquered wooden box. He has even offered me coffee and, to my surprise, revealed a metallic pot, filter and all, that he then proceeded to heat. I haven’t gone so far as to denounce his privileges to my superiors, but if I have truly eliminated (or at least obstructed) any possibility of his obtaining such items through clandestine embraces, only mesmerism can explain the prison staff ’s apparently blind obedience to him.

Bach seems animated, despite the puerile despair with which he writes. A single glance at his works (Virilities being his most demented title: a cantata to an astronaut who has been reproduced through cloning in order to conquer the universe, and who celebrates his career every step of the way with orgies during which he copiously mates with copies of himself ) has awakened in me the kind of antipathy I hadn’t felt for years. I comprehend why, according to his confession, other writers in the city would cross the street when they saw him. I comprehend why his co-religionists hastened to put him in jail. A man like Ricardo Bach ought to
be hanged.

19 May

Cherished Doctor,

Woe and fear have not subsided, despite our enlightened and pacifying talks. I have dreamed of a band of fierce priests, their garments spotted like jaguar skins, leading me to a mountain of fire and tossing me, naked, into its steaming maw. And yet I have also dreamed that an old man of amazing agility throws himself in after me at the last moment and manages to bring me safely ashore. What meaning might this dream have, Doctor? Perhaps there is someone kind enough to circumvent my destruction, before the final hour tolls in the bell tower of my life? I wish you were here with me now, Doctor. I would feel more at ease in your presence, the most consoling by far that has populated these, my final days.

Awaiting you impatiently,
bq. Ricardo Bach

20 May

Bach’s insinuations trouble me. Not because I see myself being compelled, like a small bird under a serpent’s spell, to rush over to his cell and possess him. No: I am certain that this imbecile is mocking us, and I need to determine how we shall crush him. Gustavo López delivered the required texts with sincerity and thus his perdition was consummated. But subduing a shifty character like Bach will require more subtle stratagems. Perhaps my initial judgement was mistaken and this is no lamb we are holding captive, but rather a jackal. Thus our first step should be to withdraw all dispensations and substitute them with other, less convenient ones. He shall have no wool blanket, but rather a pink down quilt. He shall not sport a prison uniform, but be compelled to dress in a T-shirt and short pants, like a boy. He shall have no pen and paper, but rather a machine that allows us to view his rough drafts. We shall maintain the toilet in his cell in a state of indefinite repair, permitting but one daily visit to the restroom used by the general prison population. For the time being, all lights will be turned off at Federal Penitentiary Number One at night, except for those illuminating Ricardo Bach’s cell.

In terms of Ortuno himself, he’s the author of El buscador de cabezas, which was chosen as the best first novel of the year, and Recursos humanos, which was a finalist for the Herralde Prize. He’s also published two collections of short stories, and according to the Granta bio, he’s been translated into a bunch of languages, including English. (I can’t find anything else of his in English . . . Although to be honest, I haven’t tried all that hard. If anyone knows of other stuff of his that has been translated, let me know and I’ll add it to this post.)

With a little luck and translation gumption, we should have an interview with Patricio Pron (another favorite of mine) for tomorrow . . .

10 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next six days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso. Translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark. (Mexico, Dalkey Archive)

I can’t do half the job summing up this mammoth book that Paul Doyle did for Quarterly Conversation. So rather than even try, I’m going to give all props to Paul and use his review to profile this particular BTBA title:

If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.

Maximilian and Carlota are the focus of the book, and even if they are not explicitly on every page, they are always in the background somewhere, providing the humanizing contradictions that fill it. Maximilian I, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867, was a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family that reigned over the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and was placed on the Mexican throne by the French Emperor Louis Napoleon. Although Maximilian thought he was bringing stability to Mexico and restoring some power to the Catholic Church, Napoleon was attempting to take advantage of political instability in Mexico to expand French influence into the Americas. Del Paso draws a complicated picture of two naïve people placed in a situation they could not manage and a country they did not understand. This innocence is especially inexplicable in the case of Maximilian, who, as brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef, should have known something about ruling but is completely unable to govern. He’d rather spend time in Cuernavaca collecting specimens or planning the protocol for a state visit. He means well but he just doesn’t know how to be an effective ruler.

This is largely due to his incredible ignorance of the country he was to govern. Del Paso gives the impression that Maximilian thought Mexico was European in the sense that he would preside over a well-established state apparatus: all he would have to do is show up and take over. This is obviously delusional, yet as Del Paso sympathetically points out “the divine right to govern nations, inculcated indelibly in the minds of many of these European princes, and then the political necessities imposed by the matrimonial alliances . . . cause many of those princes to grow up with the conviction that they had the capacity to govern and duty to love any foreign people they happened to be placed over.” [. . .]

History as one of the larger preoccupations of the book leads to a secondary question: What it is to be a Mexican? And how does one put Mexico in a wider historical frame? For Del Paso, Mexico is a country made up of many little pieces that history has forgotten, but Maximilian and Carlota, too, are Mexican because they gave up so much and, therefore, became Mexican and part of Mexico’s history. Even though they were forced upon the country, Del Paso argues that it wasn’t so much the fact of their imposition that defined Maximilian and Carlota’s role but their horrible timing. He quotes Octavio Paz: “[to] set up a barrier to the expansion of the Yankee republic wasn’t really such a bad idea in 1820, but it was anachronistic by 1860.” Anachronistic, perhaps, but paradoxically it was this intermingling of Maximilian and Carlota with Mexico that put the country into a wider global frame, releasing this era of Mexican history from a parochial interpretation that kept Mexico as a side show to Europe.

Ultimately, the fragmentary chapters lead away from a universal history, making News from the Empire a work that is both particular and personal. Nothing in the book is complete; there is always a gap in the story, whether it be the story of Maximilian’s death or Carlota’s madness. Del Paso’s goal is not to present the verdict of history, “because the insanity of History didn’t end with Carlota’s, but also because rather than a true, impossible, and . . . undesirable ‘Universal History,’ we only have many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspectives of the times and places in which they are ‘written’.” News from the Empire succeeds in this sense.

This is a much different novel from Palinuro of Mexico, the other del Paso book that’s made its way into English. (And is also published by Dalkey Archive.) Both are incredibly ambitious, with Palinuro being more manically hilarious and drunk on lists.

That’s not to say News from the Empire isn’t remarkable—it’s an amazing achievement, and the writing is beautiful, even when the central focus is historical positioning and events. It’s a tough book to quote from, but here’s the opening bit of the first “historical section” (in contrast to the “Carlota sections,” which are all set in 1927 at the end of her life).

In the year of our Lord 1861, a sallow Indian named Benito Juarez governed Mexico. He had been orphaned at three, and at eleven had become a shepherd who climbed the trees by the Enchanted Lagoon to play his reed flute and talk to the birds and beasts in Zapotec, the only language he knew.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Napoleon III reigned in France. Some had given him the nickname “Mustachoo” because of his long, full, black, and pointed mustache, which he treated with Hungarian ointments; others called him the Little Napoleon to distinguish him from his famous uncle, Napoleon the Great—that is, Napoleon Bonaparte.

One day, Benito Pablo left the relatives who had taken him in. He abandoned his sheep, and the town of his birth, Guelatao—a word meaning “deep dark night” in his language—and walked twenty-six leagues to the city of Oaxaca, where he could find work as a servant in a wealthy home like his older sister had done; and most of all where he could get an education. Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, was a city that could be described as “ultra-montane,” not only because it was located beyond the mountains, but also because of its sanctimoniousness and its submissiveness to Rome. There, Juarez learned Spanish, arithmetic and algebra, Latin, theology, and law. In time, not only in Oaxaca, but also in other cities, undergoing other exiles—whether he was stubbornly pursuing a goal or fulfilling a destiny sent by Heaven—he also learned to be a representative, then governor of his State, Minister of Justice, Secretary of the Interior, and, finally, President of the Republic.

Little Napoleon didn’t manage to become Emperor of France until his third attempt. Nothing seemed to help: not Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding ring, which people say, he had used as a talisman during his first attempt; not the strip of bacon some say he fastened to his hat during his second attempt—so that an eaglet, a bird he had bought for a pound sterling at Gravesend soon after embarking down the Thames on the Edinburgh Castle—would always follow him and hover around him. No, none of these ploys helped Little Napoleon gain the power he sought on his arrival in France.

This is a dense book that takes some time to read, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon.

Bellatin’s a pretty interesting author (see this post about the recent NY Times profile) and hopefully a bunch more of his books (especially Flores) will come out in the near future.

Larissa—who’s reviewed a number of books for us—also reviews for L Magazine and is working towards her Master’s in Library Science, while also studying Danish. Recently, she wrote a very interesting piece on Scandinavian crime fiction that you can find here.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Click here for the full review.

14 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although still an unknown in much of the English-reading world, experimental Mexican author Mario Bellatín is undoubtedly poised for a Le Clézio-esque breakthrough. A Guggenheim recipient, Bellatín is the author of nearly twenty novellas and short works, and has garnered so much success in the international market that he’s recently been courted by the preeminent French publishing house Gallimard to release several forthcoming novels in French translation prior to their publication in his native Spanish. Beauty Salon is only Bellatín’s second publication in English (Chinese Checkers, a compendium of three of his other novellas, was published in 2008).

The novella finds a lonely, unnamed hair stylist caring for the dying victims of an unidentified plague (strongly recalling the AIDS virus) in his converted beauty salon. Where once the salon was plush and dazzling—with elaborate aquariums and exotic fish lining the walls—now it is “simply the Terminal,” refitted with the bare essentials to care for victims of the disease who “. . . are strangers who have nowhere else to die. If it weren’t for the Terminal their only option would be to perish in the street.”

Though dedicated to the care of his “guests,” however, the narrator remains distant, resigned to the suffering that surrounds him. (“I had witnessed so many deaths already that I came to understand that I couldn’t take on myself the responsibility for all sick people,” he explains succinctly.) Only men in the last, most desperate stages of the disease are admitted to the Terminal, and once accepted, they are allowed neither visits from the family and friends who have refused to take them in, nor “false hopes” of recovery, nor “religious images or prayers of any kind.” Guests are allowed to receive “money, clothes and candy. Everything else is forbidden.”

Bellatín’s prose is sparse and to the point, and yet, his narrator is frequently evasive—only hinting at memories either so painful or so joyful that he seems unable to fully articulate them in the midst of his current isolation. The reader is then left to fill in the blanks between the tidbits that he shares, the memories that he casually intersperses between explanations of his daily routine. “Before it was converted into a communal place to die,” the narrator explains in one passage, “the beauty salon would close up shop at eight o’clock.”

There were three of us working in the salon. A couple of nights a week we would get all dressed up after closing time, pack up a small suitcase and head off to the center of the city. We couldn’t travel dressed as women for we had already gotten dangerous situations more than once. Which is why we packed up our dresses and our make-up and carried them with us. Before standing on a busy street corner dressed as transvestites we would hide the suitcase at the base of statues of national heros . . . Our trips to the center of the city lasted until the early hours of the morning, at which time we would get our suitcases and head back to the beauty salon to sleep . . . We all slept together in one bed.

The memory trails off shortly after into other recollections before returning once again, pages later:

bq. My fellow workers, the ones I worked with in hairstyling and cosmetics, died long ago. Now I’m the only one living in the shed. The bed we all used to sleep in now seems too large for me alone. I miss them. They are the only friends I’ve ever had.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the porousness of the narrator’s revelations, Beauty Salon succeeds in suggesting whole worlds just outside of its pages. The effect is distinctly cinematic: a montage of images which catch the reader’s eye and expand the reality of this anonymous man, anonymous disease, and anonymous city far beyond the story itself. Black tetras and angelfish, Amazon piranhas and golden carp. A friend, dressed for the evening in high ‘European’ style, trimmed with feathers and long gloves. A dying man, wrapped in cardboard “to ease his trembling.” A steaming public bath, “exclusively for men,” with a “wooden counter in the lobby with multicolored fish and red dragons carved into it.” A bowl of thin chicken soup, served to the guests each day. A common grave.

Frank, haunting, and darkly evocative, the disparate imagery (perhaps more than the story) of Beauty Salon will linger in the readers’ minds long after the brief narrative has come to a close.

14 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since Mexico is the guest of honor at the Salon du Livre 2009, Le Monde has a piece by Carlos Fuentes about five Mexican authors/books he thinks should be more well known.

The list includes works by Ignacio Padilla (Shadow without a Name is a really cool book), Pedro Angel Palou (not translated into English), Cristina Rivera Garza (_No One Will See Me Cry_ is available from Curbstone), Xavier Velasco (also not translated into English), and Jorge Volpi (In Search of Klingsor came out from Simon & Schuster a few years ago, and we’ll be publishing Season of Ash this September).

Interesting list, although it’s sort of depressing how few books have been published in English from these Fuentes-endorsed writers . . . Hopefully that will change soon.

17 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

While I was at the AWP conference, a ton of interesting books arrived in our offices, all worth writing about. I’ll try and cover more of these over the next few weeks, but for now, I thought I’d look at the three titles translated from Spanish that caught my eye.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto is one of the spring books that I’m most excited about. Prieto’s first book — Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire — earned him comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, and it sounds like Rex is working in that same vein, as a “sexy and zany literary game rife with allusions to Proust, Homer, Pushkin, and even Star Wars, set in a world of wealthy Russian expats and Mafiosos who have settled in Western Europe.” I talked to Esther Allen at some point when she was working on this translation, and I remember her recommending it highly. Even from the first paragraph it’s evident Prieto has a special command:

I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer. Always the right words, flowing out miraculously, as if he never had to stop and think about them, as easily and naturally as someone randomly humming syllables, nonsense noises, tra-la-la-ing a tune.

It’s thanks to Monica Carter that I recently found out about Scarletta Press. (That and the fact that the director came to the panel I was on at AWP.) A relatively young press, Scarletta is doing a couple of translations this season, including Ignacio Solares‘s Yankee Invasion, a historical novel about life in Mexico under U.S. rule. The novel is written as a memoir-in-process by an old Mexican man haunted by his experiences during the “Yankee Invasion.” Carlos Fuentes wrote an introduction for this novel, and Solares is one of Mexico’s most respected — and prolific — contemporary writers, so this should be worth checking out.

And speaking of contemporary Mexican writers, I also received a finished copy of the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction anthology that Dalkey Archive is putting out thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts cultural exchange project. Edited by Alvaro Uribe (with the translations edited by Olivia Sears), this volume collects stories from sixteen Mexican writers born after 1945, including Cristina Rivera-Garza, Rosa Beltran, Juan Villoro, Daniel Sada, Guillermo Samperio, and Hector Manjarrez. I’ve heard elsewhere that a lot of these stories are Bonsai-esque, and I’ve been waiting to read a number of these authors for years, so I have big hopes for this book. The only thing that sucks (aside from the fact that Open Letter couldn’t apply for this project) is the interior design: I’m all for bilingual poetry collections, but printing prose on bilingual facing pages—especially when the text on the two pages in no way matches up—is sort of bizarre and hard to read. Probably would’ve been cooler to have the English in the front and Spanish in the back, and vice-versa for the Mexican edition.

17 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As reported in PW yesterday, the NEA just announced the next round of Big Read grants and will be giving $2.8 million to 208 libraries and other organizations across the country to put together Big Read events in their community. (Including Writers & Books here in Rochester.)

There are now 23 titles eligible for selection, but what’s really interesting to me is the launch of “Big Read Mexico,” which will focus on Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories. This anthology (which I mentioned in one of the BEA posts) is quite impressive, and will be available in the near future from Fondo de Cultura Economica. It will be sold throughout the U.S. for a very reasonable $10.

After 2666 and after Horacio Moya’s Senselessness, I plan on reading and reviewing this myself . . . But with all that’s going on, it just might be August by that time . . .

28 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Also taking place in New York is a reading and discussion of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, which is an anthology of Mexican fiction.

The event is Wednesday, September 12, 2007 at 6 pm, at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at NYU and will feature editor CM Mayo, writers Pedro Angel Palou and Monica Lavin, and translators Harry Morales and Daniel Shapiro.

8 August 07 | CS | Comments

Following up on an earlier post, I wanted to point out that there’s also a great interview with Sergio Pitol in La Jornada Semanal from July 29. There he talks about his grandmother who he calls “una senora de rancho” who used to sit him down with his brother and tell them tall tales over lunch: her travels to Italy and her life on the ranch and her fascination with Tolstoy. The plots of his first collection of short stories he attributes entirely to her. It took him a while after that to find other things to write about (so he says).

Interestingly, he decided to buy a small house in the country and set out to be a translator after his first stories came out!!! Since then he has never been at a loss for topics, and his interview then has a bit about the theatrical and cinematic elements of his characters and his passion for the plays of Oscar Wilde.

31 July 07 | CS | Comments

So besides Harry Potter, what are Mexicans reading this summer? Novelist Jorge Volpi’s collection of essays México: Lo que todo ciudadano quisiera (no) saber de su patria (Mexico: What every citizen would [not] like to know about her/his homeland), is hot and number #1 on lists.

But the real news is Fernanda Melchor’s winning entry in the National University’s competition VIRTUALIDAD: LITERARIO CAZA DE LETRAS [Virtuality: Literary Hunt for Writers]. This 25-year-old from Boca del Río, Veracruz is a new name to watch for!! Morir en viernes is the title of her first novel.

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