Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.
Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal, Translated from the Spanish by Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres, translated by Norman Cheadle, with the help of Sheila Ethier, is a standout among the Best Translated Book Award finalist in quite a few ways. Most obviously, it’s the biggest in the bunch – nearly seven hundred pages, and a brick of a book. It’s also the oldest title in the running: despite how many deceased authors are featured among the finalists (ten of the books are by authors who have died) all the titles are nevertheless post-World War II publications (in their original languages) – a rare occurrence for the BTBA longlist – and this 1948 publication is the oldest of the lot. But size and age are the least of the reasons why Adam Buenosayres should win the Best Translated Book Award.
What is this book?
Adam Buenosayres is a largely autobiographical novel set in 1920s Buenos Aires – a time when Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Marechal was part of the vibrant developing artistic scene. It clearly owes a debt to Joyce – Cheadle suggests it is: “the first Joycean novel to be written in Spanish-language literature” – and with the action covering just the span of a few days, concentrated entirely all across one city (Buenos Aires), and employing a variety of styles and approaches, it does resemble Ulysses. It is a roman à clef, city homage, and philosophical novel – a great period- (and place-) piece that’s also a superior literary work.
Why should it win the Best Translated Book Award?
1. Julio Cortázar – BTBA-longlisted for his sublime Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – hailed the book as: “an extraordinary event in Argentine literature” in reviewing it in 1949, and it is widely recognized as one of the great novels of modern Latin American literature.
2. A character closely based on Jorge Luis Borges features in it. Borges was part of the same crowd in the 1920s, and Marechal’s thinly-disguised versions of him and other notables (notably Xul Solar – who provides the cover-art for this very good-looking volume) offer often amusing insight into these famous artists. Bonus: Cheadle notes that: “Borges never forgave Marechal for his caricature as Luis Pereda and refused even to acknowledge the novel’s existence.”
3. It offers a remarkable city-portrait, a definitive one of 1920 Buenos Aires, as impressive as Joyce’s of Dublin.
4. Marechal’s narrative is playful and varied – maybe not quite to a Joycean extent, but he certainly mixes it up here. As Marechal piles it on, the amount of material can get exhausting, but the sheer inventiveness – and the humor – consistently impress and entertain.
5. This edition – the presentation of the novel-in-translation – is exemplary. Some of the longlisted books present just the translated texts themselves – which is often enough, or even preferable. After all, it’s the text that counts, and a best translated book should be able to stand well on its own. Adam Buenosayres comes seriously annotated: there are close to seventy pages of endnotes (along with a helpful introduction), and a nine-page bibliography. That, and the fact that it’s published by a university press (McGill-Queen’s University Press), might worry readers into thinking that it’s a dryly scholarly edition. Anything but, I’d suggest: obviously, given the time and place it is set in and the autobiographical elements, some background (which the introduction provides) helps in understanding the text basics, but the novel can be read and thoroughly enjoyed without worrying about the details behind everything. On the other hand, that added background layer – of who the characters are based on, historic circumstances, and local/period trivia – do make considerably more of the book, and here the endnotes are invaluable. Cheadle’s work here is a model of academic (yet still approachable) rigor, the endnotes very detailed – about the smallest detail – and thorough.
6. Norman Cheadle’s – with the help of Sheila Ethier – translation truly is a superior work. This is one of those works where it is clear that the translator has engaged with the material not just for a few months but over a much more extended period of time. As the endnotes, and Cheadle’s other writings about Marechal, demonstrate, Cheadle has immersed himself in the author and the work for many years, and he has come to know it thoroughly. His translation reflects his great understanding of and familiarity with the author and the work. Despite the challenges the novel poses – from the use of dialect and the variety of forms Marechal plays with – the translation manages also to be an artistic and not just academic success – an exuberant, comic, and clever rendering.
7. Adam Buenosayres is one of these tries-to-do-almost-everything/magnum opus books. On a longlist that features so many short-story collections and where even many of the (more-or-less-)novels are extremely slim (Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires, Letters from a Seducer, 1914, Works) it stands out as a very different kind of work (with only Saer’s La Grande anywhere in the same league). For those who like their books big, expansive, far-reaching, Adam Buenosayres is the obvious choice.
8. It’s just a wonderful read and reading experience.
Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.
Some five-hundred-odd translated titles are in contention – well, at least get considered – for a book prize, the Best Translated Book Award. Not surprisingly, a number of them have previously won literary prizes of one sort of another, and it’s interesting to see how they stack up against the still-un-prized competition.
Two of the authors with books in the running are Nobel laureates – though in the case of José Saramago, the eligible title is not one which was taken into consideration in awarding him that prize: his posthumously published but very early novel, Skylight, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. 2014 Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences(trans. by Mark Polizzotti), on the other hand, is unusual in being a three-for-one collection, collecting three novel(las) that were originally published as stand-alones. Despite all the criticism the Swedish Academy gets for some of their Nobel selections, it’s rare that a laureate’s work isn’t worth reading. The Saramago – written in the early 1950s, and, when it was not accepted for publication, leading him to abandon writing fiction for nearly a quarter of a century – stands in every way apart from the rest of his work but already suggests many of the qualities of his later writing. The Modiano-trio, on the other hand, is from a writer at the height of his powers – and benefits some from being a triple-dose: Modiano’s work is all related – arguably part of just one very big book – and this volume nicely presents three versions of it. (On the other hand, it suffers a bit by comparison with one of the few of his other works available in English, Honeymoon(trans. by Barbara Wright), written during the same period (chronologically it belongs in the middle of these three) and still my favorite of the available-in-English Modianos.)
The literary-prize-winner that BTBA watchers might have their eye on most is (sort of) the winner of last year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is the closest British approximation to the BTBA. (The IFFP differs from the BTBA in that it does consider re-translations (the BTBA doesn’t) and doesn’t consider books by dead authors (the BTBA does).) The IFFP went to Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ ; confusingly, the US edition of his stories eligible for this year’s BTBA, The Corpse Exhibition(trans. by Jonathan Wright), is made up of a collection of stories from that volume, as well as from a previously-published-in-the-UK volume, The Madman of Freedom Square. Twice as much Blasim as in his IFFP-winning book – that presumably can’t hurt his chances! Short story collections have historically had a hard time in the BTBA-process, but Blasim’s is certainly among the more promising contenders in recent years.
Not that many national or regional book prizes – beyond those awarded to English-language books like the Man Booker – are well-known in the US but one that probably should be is the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the top Scandinavian prize. The list of winners is an impressive one, and several winning titles have been among the BTBA contenders in recent years. This year Baboon, by Naja Marie Aidt (trans. by Denise Newman), the 2008 winner, is in the running. Another short story collection – in a year with quite a few of these – it’s certainly a title to look out for.
While the Prix Goncourt is the major French literary prize, the Prix Renaudot is the clear runner-up – and Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile — translated by Melanie Mauthner and published by Archipelago, who always seem to have a couple of titles on the BTBA longlist – is in the BTBA-running this year.
And while genre novels always have a tough time asserting themselves in the BTBA, how about Bed of Nails, by Antonin Varenne (trans. by Sian Reynolds) – the 2009 Prix Polar Michel Lebrun- and Grand Prix Sang d’encre-winner? (The fact that it’s been such an impressive year for French noir – a quartet of Pascal Garnier novels, and a Jean-Patrick Manchette leading the way – is probably the biggest hurdle to this title making the cut.)
It’s also interesting to see what translations into other languages have been prize-winning. There’s Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, for example, a Spanish novel whose French translation won the 2011 Prix Initiales.
And then there’s a book like Maylis de Kerangal’s Birth of a Bridge(trans. by Jessica Moore): the original French won the 2010 Prix Medicis and the Prix Franz Hessel, and the Italian translation won the 2014 Premio Gregor von Rezzori. Published in English by Canadian Talonbooks, this is yet another translation that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves but which has the stuff to go far in the BTBA, introducing a new and distinctive voice (in admirable translation) whom we’ll be hearing a lot more of.
Of course, winning a literary prize is not a guarantee of quality, and one title in the BTBA-running stands out in this regard. Winner of both the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the 2012 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, a finalist for both the highest French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Prix Femina, you’d figure Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair would have to be a front-runner for the BTBA. I can’t speak for my fellow judges, who may yet vote to put this thing on the longlist…no, I think I can speak with confidence in stating that this will not be among the books that will be in anywhere near the final running. Despite – or actually in part also because of – its American setting, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair manages to feel foreign in all the wrong ways, certainly to American ears.
The size of a book shouldn’t really matter, not when judging whether or not it’s Best Translated Book Award-worthy, but one of the things that has struck me about this year’s batch of eligible titles is that page- if not quality-wise many of the pickings are slimmer than usual.
Mind you, I’m still reeling from 2011 and the memories of (lugging, not to mention reading) Péter Nádas’s 1133-pager Parallel Stories …. (I don’t even want to think about 2009 and Jonathan Littell’s … let’s say unfortunate near-1000 page The Kindly Ones.) So, yes, there’s something to be said for shorter books – beginning with the logistical advantages, of getting through them, as well as the quicker variety moving from one to the next allows for (getting bogged down in a 500-pager is very different (and more drawn-out-painful) than getting bogged down in a book of 100 pages …).
Last year’s shortlist had quite a few substantial books: if not quite the norm, there were a decent number of 400+ page books, including the winning title. Hell, 400 pages seemed almost unremarkable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time topped 600, and along the way there had been longer books too: Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art Of Joy was just short of 700 pages, France Daigle’s For Sure easily topped that.
Quite a few 2014 books make it into the 400 page range – including obvious contenders for at least the final award-stages (longlist, shortlist): this year’s Knausgaard (My Struggle: Book Three), just like last year’s; this year’s Ferrante (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), just like last year’s …. But there just don’t seem to be that many other bulky books. And there seem to be a lot of very slim ones.
True, we’re unlikely ever to have an entry as short as last year’s Her Not All Her — Elfriede Jelinek’s longlisted … well, it was barely a forty-page pamphlet. But the pile of top titles that come in at under a hundred pages is surprising.
Among my favorites this year has been Julio Cortázar’s (comic book-)inspired Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (87 generously illustrated pages), which is about the most fun I’ve had reading any of these books this year. With cameos by Susan Sontag and Alberto Moravia this is … well, wild barely begins to describe it. But the writing (and translation, by David Kurnick) is sharp, and, despite being almost forty years old, it feels surprisingly topical and current.
Arno Camenisch’s The Alp (82 pages) is just one of what seems like dozens of Dalkey Archive Press entries in the 100-page-range (it’s not dozens, but there are quite a few). Here is an author who works in both German and Romansh (the fourth official language of Switzerland) – a challenge Donal McLaughlin seems quite up to here.
There’s a second Haruki Murakami book due out this year, too — The Strange Library, another book that counts as “heavily illustrated” and still doesn’t make it to a hundred pages. There’s a fairly new Murakami translator at work here too – one we haven’t read in the previous translations, Ted Goosen — and while it is a very small piece (and competes against the other Murakami in the running this year, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by older Murakami-hand Philip Gabriel) can’t be discounted at this early stage.
Some good-looking short story collections come in under the century-mark — Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water and Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories among them – but I’m particularly surprised by the number of novels of this size. And by how many of them punch considerably above their weight: Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog Eyes is probably only sustainable over this length, while Jean Echenoz’s just over 100-page 1914 is a master-class in economical storytelling.
Others under 100 pages include the almost obligatory annual diminutive César Aira – Conversations this year (88 pages) – and Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father. Special mention has to go to Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences, a volume we weren’t expecting until next year until he was named this year’s Nobel laureate, leading Yale University Press to push up the publication date: it consists of ‘Three Novellas’, filling just over 200 pages – but in France (and elsewhere) the slim volumes have also been published individually. Almost unfair for the Nobel laureate to get three chances to wow the judges in one go (and, helped along by translator Mark Polizzotti, who seems to have a really good feel for Modiano’s style, he certainly wowed this one).
So are there any fat chance-counterweights to these slim pickings? As I said, a couple of contenders make it into the 400 page range, but beyond that the choices are few and far between. Some thrillers and the like but from what I’ve seen so far, nothing that could make a serious dent (sorry, Zoran Drvenkar’s You may have an intriguing range of voices, but … yeah, sorry, no). The best 500+ pagers I’ve checked out so far are Leonardo Padura’s Trotsky novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, which has the qualities that could put it on the longlist, and Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus, which also turns out to be a nice surprise. But they both do sag a bit under their weight – always the danger with the long ones.
The one I’m most curious about is one I haven’t seen yet: H.G. Adler’s The Wall (a reported 656 pages), the last in a trilogy that has impressed so far. This comes with some very good buzz, so I definitely see some potential here. Of course, I do have to see it before I can properly judge …..
We’re used to meaty books when it comes to fiction in translation, as if length were more proof of a book’s weighty worthiness. From the biggest Bolaños and recent BTBA winners Myśliwski and (2x) Krasznahorkai they never entirely shoved smaller works aside, but maybe had an easier time making more of a big impression. I wonder whether we’ll now see a shift towards some of this smaller work – looking even stronger this year than usual.
There’s no real official start date for the judging of the Best Translated Book Award – though maybe the announcement finalizing who the judges actually are is a good starting point. While some of us have been here before – and have probably been reading with an eye towards the 2015 prize all year already – others have only been roped into the process more recently. But in fact, while we are already two-thirds into the year (the 2015 prize is for a work of fiction, never previously translated, published/distributed in the US in 2014), it really is still early days for all of us judges. Publishers have until the very last day of the year, December 31st, to submit titles to us, and while quite a few have already gotten some nice batches of books out to us (many thanks!), experience suggests that the submission piles will only really start piling up in the coming months. (Publishers don’t have to submit titles – we’ll try to consider anything that is eligible, regardless – but it certainly helps (a lot) if they do; and while the December 31 deadline isn’t actually an absolute one (yes, we’ll (try very hard to …) look at books even after then if for some reason they’ve escaped us until then) the more time we do have to consider books, the better.)
I get a lot of these titles anyway, all year long, as submissions for possible review at the Complete Review, so I don’t quite feel I’ve suddenly been thrown into a bottomless ocean of fiction-in-translation – I’ve been wading in it all year already – , but opening the spreadsheet where we track the books and share our comments on our on-going reading can feel a bit overwhelming. The spreadsheet is based on the Translation Database Chad Post keeps at Three Percent, with the ineligible works (such as anthologies) weeded out, and kept perhaps slightly more up-to-date. So while the 2014 database currently lists 384 fiction- titles, the spreadsheet – as I write this – already lists 408. (A few more of these will probably be weeded out, while a few dozen more will likely eventually be added – such as that just-announced new Murakami work.) Still,
408 409 works…..
A few books always escape us – we just can’t get our hands on even one copy – but we do try our hardest to at least consider them all. Some admittedly more than others: it only takes a quick dip into some of the books to realize there’s not much there – surprisingly few, however: translation does tend to act as a filter: all the extra work involved in getting a book published in English translation does seem to weed out most of the truly terrible stuff.
I build my BTBA piles as the books come in (fortunately not all 400+ books at once …) and try to work my way through, setting aside the ones which I think might possibly be in the running – and flinging away the ones which I think don’t deserve or have a chance (flinging carefully, since my fellow-judges might have different views and might make the case for these later in the process). For now, everything still seems reasonably manageable – the piles aren’t too high (we’re only two-thirds of the way into the year, so a lot of books haven’t been published yet and aren’t available for us to consider – I don’t think I’ve seen even close to half of the eligible titles yet), the spreadsheet isn’t yet a blur of titles – but I know from experience that it’s important to plow ahead at a steady clip, so as not to really be overwhelmed when the serious decision-making process starts early next year.
Already four months ago, just after this year’s winners were announced, I looked ahead, suggesting some of the titles I figured would be contenders for the 2015 longlist. I’ve seen and read a lot more of the eligible titles by now, but the picture is still a pretty hazy one to me – which I think is probably for the best: there are far too many more works to get through, and too many other opinions to hear and consider for anything to be set anywhere near in stone yet …..
There are, as always, some big names and some obvious contenders, but so far I haven’t been convinced there’s an obvious break-out title (we’re not going to have a Krasznahorkai three-peat – no eligible title, this time around), and there are fairly few ‘big’ books from the most prominent authors. Yes there’s a new Murakami, which I enjoyed, but it’s safe to say it’s not one of his major works; it’ll be in the longlist discussions, I assume, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised or shocked if it doesn’t make the short- or even longlist.
Two other authors who probably do qualify as literary powerhouses by now – Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante – are certainly in the thick of things with their new books, both of which are very strong. But they’re also (both) the third installment in multi-volume series, and so it’s possible that some reader-fatigue has or is setting in. I’m tipping Knausgaard’s final installment – number six, probably a couple of years off – as a likely future BTBA winner, but I don’t know if these middle-books can generate that top-level of excitement to consistently push them through to the shortlist. Ferrante, on the other hand, seems to have more momentum (and, this year, arguably the stronger book) – though the fact that it turns out this one isn’t the last in the series either might prove a bit deflating as well.
For now, it’s simply about reading – digesting as much as possible and getting those initial impressions. A bit of cream rises easily to the top, but it’ll be a few months – until we start discussing in earnest – before I really start thinking seriously about what books I’d like to see on the longlist and what books I might not have given a fair shot yet (as other judges make the case for books X,Y, and Z). Fun times – for now.
A common complaint leveled against the Man Booker Prize is that it ignores genre fiction – for a couple of years there was the obligatory Ian Rankin denunciation of how unfair it was that the jury always overlooked crime fiction, while more recently it’s also science fiction authors that have registered complaints. (For an early overview of some of this, see Peter Preston’s 2005 piece, Genre specific, in The Guardian.) The Man Booker is, of course, specifically designed to be genre-unfriendly – the strict and absurd limits on what books can be submitted (in recent years, basically just two titles per publisher) pretty much ensure that publishers won’t submit a genre title for the limited, coveted spots (unless the publisher publishes nothing but genre titles) – making these complaints rather futile tilting at windmills. (It seems near-certain that none of Ian Rankin’s books were ever even submitted for the prize by his publishers (and hence could never even be considered by the jury).)
The Best Translated Book Award doesn’t have that excuse: we consider every previously untranslated work of fiction published in the US in the relevant year. (Well, we try to – logistics do mean that the one or other title slips through the cracks because none of us manage to get our hands on a copy.) A significant number of books we consider are genre titles – not much Harlequin-type romance, and still surprisingly little science fiction, but a hell of a lot of mysteries and thrillers. Just piles and piles of them. The Nordic crime wave continues – there are three Jo Nesbøs alone to consider this year – but other countries are also churning them out (often in multiples, too – this year there are also two Andrea Camilleris, four Maurizio De Giovannis, two Pieter Aspes etc.). Yet over the years very little that even resembles genre fiction has made it past the first cut, onto the 25-title-strong longlists. The 2013 and 2012 longlists are entirely mystery/thriller-free, and you have to go back to 2011 where, arguably, Martín Solares‘ The Black Minutes qualifies as such.
I think there have been some reasonable genre (or at least genre-like) contenders for the longlist over the years. As far as mysteries/thrillers go, I was disappointed that Nakamura Fuminori’s The Thief didn’t make the cut last year, and I think there has been a case to be made for Deon Meyer’s Trackers, Leif G.W. Persson’s Another Time, Another Life, and, for sheer hard-boiled punch, J.P.Manchette’s Fatale, over the years.
As far as science fiction goes, there have been titles with fantastical elements that have gotten serious consideration – Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times was shortlisted last year and Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas made the longlist (it also won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards last year); Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age was shortlisted in 2010. But even these – or another book that stood a decent chance of getting longlisted, Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences – likely aren’t found on the science fiction shelves of most bookstores (i.e. they generally aren’t considered truly genre-books).
Given that – at least as far as mysteries and thrillers go – genre titles make up such a large percentage of the titles we consider, I’m a bit disappointed that they fare so poorly. But honestly: few really stand out. As Man Booker Prize judge Stuart Kelly recently pointed out, a prize-deserving book should read well on re-reading, too – and crime novels, where much of the point is often learning whodunit (and how), generally rely so much on plot that once that has been revealed and resolved there’s just not enough left to the book for a reader to go out of his or her way to return to it. (That doesn’t have to be the case, of course: there are classic mysteries that it’s a pleasure to return to (I’ll pick up any of those Raymond Chandlers or Jim Thompsons I’ve already read any day), and there are books eligible this year that come with mystery-like surprises and twists that still impress mightily even when one is aware of them (I mention, yet again, Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza …).)
Many of the crime novels in the running for the BTBA are also part of a series, featuring the same cast of detecting characters – Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Camilleri’s Montalbano, etc. – and it’s generally hard for an individual title from a series to really stand out (and stand separately). (The fact that US/UK publishers perversely continue to publish crime fiction series in translation out of sequence – one of the Nesbøs published this year is the first in his Harry Hole series, while the third in the series was the first published in English, way back in 2006 – doesn’t help matters at all, either.)
Crime fiction tends to be more formulaic than most, too – more likely to follow a predictable path and pattern – which again makes it difficult for such books to really stand out – at least against the competition, which includes a lot of very creative work, a lot of great writing (which, it has to be said, does not always appear to be a top priority for many of the mystery authors whose work we see), and even a lot of plots that are as exciting as any well-turned thriller.
Finally, it also has to be noted that the translations of genre fiction are … let’s say less consistently of the highest quality. The translator-names generally aren’t the best-known (though many high profile translators do dabble in genre fiction, too), and there’s perhaps a bit less care and attention paid in the entire translation process when it comes to this sort of fiction. (That’s also why it’s so exciting to see Penguin’s new translations of Simenon’s Maigret-novels starting (in the US) next year (sadly ineligible for the BTBA, since they’ve all been translated before) – a great roster of translators bringing their A-game to works where the previous translations seem to have been … less than ideal (and that was Simenon !).)
So how does it look for this year’s crop? Well, I still have a lot of books to go through, but so far nothing has leapt out at me from the mystery/thriller pile. A lot of this stuff is decent beach reading, but really not much more (and I suspect some of my fellow judges are even less receptive to much of this sort of thing). Something like Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer benefits from being a product of a different era, which gives it a different feel from most of what we come across, but that’s not quite enough. And as far as the much-touted contemporary thrillers go, none that I’ve read so far has even come close to living up to its promise. (Meanwhile, I’m holding out hope for Mai Jia’s Decoded come 2014 …..).
The one genre-esque title that has stood out: Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End, which is the sort of clever science fiction I’d like to see more. It’s not entirely successful – those big ideas can be hard to neatly tie together – but it’s still damn good, a title I could see on the longlist.
Still, there are a lot more books to get to – including Frank Schätzing’s massive Limit … – and I haven’t given up hope yet. …..
One of the many interesting things about judging the Best Translated Book Award is the sense it gives you of what (and how much) is actually being translated into English (and published/distributed in the US). Thanks largely to Dalkey Archive Press’ Library of Korean Literature, for example, we’re suddenly exposed to about a dozen Korean titles this year (without the Dalkey publications, it would be more like … one). The statistics can be revealing – and disappointing. Sure, we get … well, if not quite any number so at least a whole lot of French titles – but Chinese ? Isn’t Chinese literature hot right now ? Last time the database we rely on was updated (i.e. there might still be some unaccounted for) I counted all of three eligible titles.
Numbers-wise, among the literatures which seems to consistently punch above its population-weight, along with Icelandic and Hebrew, is Dutch (meaning: Dutch and Flemish), and while we have (at last count) quote-unquote only six works of fiction to consider … well, damn, it is an impressive selection (and the Vondel Prize-folks — who have to consider two years’ worth of publications — have their work cut out for them).
I haven’t seen one of these yet — The Square of Revenge, ‘An Inspector Van In novel’ by Pieter Aspe – and I suspect that its being part of a mystery series makes it a longshot to get longlisted, but I note that Aspe has apparently sold millions and that this book did get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (only as part of Marilyn Stasio‘s ‘Crime’-round-up, but still). [As it turns out, there’s a double-bill of Inspector Van In novels eligible – a second one, The Midas Murders, having also appeared in the eligible period (but failing to make it onto the database for now – an omission Chad will rectify shortly. So that’s seven – and counting … – Dutch titles in the running.]
Even if they are great mysteries, the Aspes will be hard-pressed to compete with the other Dutch titles elbowing for spots on the longlist. First off, there’s Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake , in Ina Rilke’s translation — which fellow-judge Daniel Medin has already delighted in in a previous Three Percent/BTBA post. Haasse — who died just two years ago, at a very ripe old age – wrote this back in 1948. While quite a bit of the work by this grand old lady of Dutch literature has been published in translation, it’s great to see this important, powerful little novel about colonial Indonesia finally also available in English.
There’s another, even older work in the running, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel, The Forbidden Kingdom. This unusual time-bridging narrative features Portuguese traveler and poet, Luís de Camões, as well as a modern-day (well, early 20th-century) events, and is a wonderful (and wonderfully surprising) more-than-just-adventure novel.
Then there’s Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese — which you might also recognize from the title it was published in the UK under, The Detour , since it, in David Colmer’s translation, already won the biggest translation-into-English prize on the other side of the Atlantic, the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, With Bakker’s previous novel, The Twin, already making the 2010 BTBA shortlist it’s clear he’s an author – and this a book – that has to be taken pretty seriously.
Finally, there are the two Sam Garrett-translated titles – notable not just because they share a translator (Anthea Bell has him beat there, hands down, with five translations in the BTBA-running) but because they’re in many ways quite similar works – and both were incredibly successful in the Netherlands. One is Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg, the other The Dinner by Herman Koch. Amazingly, both were reviewed in the not-known-as-very-open-to-fiction-in-translation New York Times Book Review – here and here – and The Dinner even got the Janet Maslin treatment in the daily Times (she loathed it).
One seems to have done much, much better sales-wise than the other — The Dinner, which actually can boast of being a New York Times bestseller (indeed, it spent quite a few weeks on the bestseller lists). Yet Tirza is the clearly superior work; as Claire Messud concluded in her NYTBR review of The Dinner, that novel, while “absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow”. Tirza, on the other hand, is both entertaining and, ultimately, profound.
Both novels have a horrific twist. In the case of The Dinner it is one that’s, at least in its outlines, fairly obvious early on – but just keeps getting more twisted and horrific as the novel progresses (an admittedly very nice and disturbing touch). Tirza seems to follow a simpler arc of personal dissolution before taking its more surprising final turn into the abyss.
The Dinner uses a meal at a fancy restaurant as its foundation, taking readers through the many courses while incongruously (that’s the intent, anyway) increasingly disturbing revelations are made. With one of the characters running for high political office (prime minister, in fact), The Dinner is a cruel satire of contemporary Dutch movers and shakers (and any notion of civilized behavior in general). By turns shocking as well as occasionally funny, it does have considerable shock-value-appeal – but there’s not that much more to it. Koch does reasonably well, but not quite well enough with what is also ultimately a very ugly tale that – as Messud noted – doesn’t really have much depth to it.
Tirza also involves an almost unspeakable act, but Grunberg is the far superior craftsman in leading readers there, the shock, when it comes, all the more affecting. It’s a remarkably convincing portrait of a man falling apart. Like Koch’s novel, it’s uncomfortable to read, in part, but whereas Koch’s exaggerated satire can also be shrugged off – good for cocktail-party chatter, but hardly to be taken seriously as an in any way a profound critique of society – Grunberg’s novel sits much deeper.
I can see the easy appeal of The Dinner – part of which is surely also that it can be shrugged off fairly easily, as over-the-top satire often can. Tirza, much more personal than public (no one running for the highest office in the land here …), may not be a novel whose protagonist readers want to identify with either, but it’s a completely convincing portrait of (a) contemporary man and contemporary society.
This BTBA selection process, of narrowing down the three or four hundred eligible books, first to a longlist, is challenging. I’ve just gone over the Dutch titles here, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for four of them to at least reach the final-25 stage. Whatever the outcome – I am only of nine judges, after all, and I can’t be sure how my fellow judges feel about these (and the many other worthy) titles – I’d be surprised if Tirza didn’t make the cut, and if The Dinner did.
The September/October issue of World Literature Today is apparently now available. (Stealing from Michael Orthofer’s playbook, I say apparently because I actually subscribed to WLT a couple years ago and received exactly one issue . . . which is pretty much what happened with my subscription to The Nation. What the hell? This is a pretty savvy way to keep newspapers & magazines alive—convince people to subscribe and send them nothing.)
Anyway, the new issue has a focus on “International Short Fiction,” edited by Alan Cheuse. A couple of the stories are available online (although the vast majority of the content is only available in the mythical “print” version—OK, I’ll stop now), as is Alan Cheuse’s introduction to the special section.
I was going to copy over the paragraph describing the stories in this section, but the way WLT displays its content prevents this. I love WLT and all the people who work there, but this is stupid. On a less busy day, I would retype the paragraph and try and intrigue anyone reading this to click over to read the issue—or maybe even buy a copy. But fuck it. If you’re not going to play the game right, you’re not going to get any online love. So. There are stories. That are short. From authors. Maybe of interest.
I will link to this conversation between Michael Orthofer and Eshkol Nevo that took place at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. It’s an interesting discussion, and Nevo sounds like a fascinating writer (Homesick is available from Dalkey Archive).
Anyway, hopefully someone in Oklahoma will decide to abandon this ridiculous internet format before the November/December issue. (And yes, I know it’s been like this for a while, but it’s never pissed me off this much before.) If you want to offer a limited amount of content from your magazine, that’s your prerogative. But if you want to tap into the power of finding readers on the Internets, offer said content in a form that makes sense. OK. Done.
Having been at this for almost three years myself, I’m astounded by Michael Orthofer’s ability to keep writing such quality posts and reviews for so long. He’s on top of everything related to international literature, and really does cover stuff that no one else is writing about.
So congrats, Michael!
And in related news, Michael recently bought a Sony eReader. I’ll be very interested to see what he thinks of this as time goes on . . .
Here’s a picture from this month’s Best Translated Book Award, with some of the winners and several judges.
A good time was had by all.
Not many people are as dialed into the Nobel Prize for Literature speculation as Michael Orthofer of the Literary Saloon. And his post this morning about the possibility of Herta Müller being announced as the winner tomorrow is pretty intriguing.
And before anyone says “Herta who?,” Michael already put together a Herta Müller page with info about all of her books. A few of her titles have made their way into English, including Traveling on One Leg and most recently The Appointment.
Now that’s all fine and good, but it’s the basis for Michael’s speculation that’s really interesting:
1. Ladbrokes’ odds have broken her way in a strong way: there’s been almost no movement on the list — and Amos Oz remains the 4/1 favorite — but the odds on Müller have gone from 50/1 to 7/1. [Updated: And now she’s up to 3/1 (as is Oz, who has moved slightly) — though this final movement of the odds may be because of the sort of speculation I am spewing out …..]
If you remember what happened last year—Le Clezio’s odds shot up from 14/1 to 2/1 due to a possible leak—you know that this shift in odds can be pretty telling . . . Also:
2. The referrer logs for the Literary Saloon yesterday — when I’d mentioned that the Müller-odds were worth paying attention to — showed several visits from mail.Svenskaakademien.se
Visits from the Swedish Academy (who select the Nobel laureate) aren’t that unusual, but more than one in close succession is — and this indicates someone there was mailing around the (well, a) link. It’s impossible to know whether they were just keeping track of Nobel coverage, laughing at how off-base my comments were — or expressing irritation. Nevertheless, it seems noteworthy that at least some of what I’ve written here has proven to be of interest to the powers that be — and the Müller-speculation seems the obvious thing that might have caught their eye.
Sure, there’s an air of conspiracy theory to all this speculation, but it is fun, and somewhat convincing . . . We’ll all find out tomorrow . . .
This was a great week for Open Letter books, with three of our recent releases getting some nice coverage:
In English for the first time in Martha Tennent’s translation, Death in Spring is about a society that finds highly elaborate ways to elude the inevitable and to conquer time. Its means are slow and insidious, ritualistic and bizarre, always teetering on the line between the real and the magical. Its members, obsessed with imprisoning themselves, pour concrete into the mouths of the dead to keep their souls from escaping. Every spring, they paint the houses pink and it’s unclear whether anyone remembers why. Though the novel is propelled forward by a linear narrative, it is its characters’ evasion of this diachrony that is most captivating. The book is driven by linguistic and thematic repetition, like a prose sestina in which the end words could be symbols or simply icons, aesthetic trends or markers that unfold and elaborate the path of the narrative. We see wisteria and bees, horses and butterflies, souls and prisoners weave in and out of the text, each time reappearing with a new relevance, a new level of meaning.
Christopher Byrd’s review of Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel in the B&N Review is also pretty fantastic:
From the opening paragraph — in which the protagonist awakens to discover a couple of Mafiosi in his room who have taken it upon themselves to act as literary agents for a female poet — to the closing paragraphs that flick away the tragic arc that’s usually prefabricated for books in the end-of-the-bottle genre, Pilch teases out plenty of LOL moments from desultory situations. All told, The Mighty Angel furnishes enough Schadenfreude to stylishly blacken just about any comedic sensibility.
Becky Ferreira at L Magazine agrees:
Pilch’s prose is masterful, and the bulk of The Mighty Angel evokes the same numb, floating sensation as a bottle of oadkowa Gorzka. But it’s not until Jerzy haphazardly reveals facts of his grandfather’s life that the naked grotesquerie of alcoholism pierces through the book’s often casual and flippant wit. Though the final chapters posit a chance at redemption, it remains unclear whether Jerzy is breaking the cycle, or just trading in one vice for another. To Pilch’s credit, both of Jerzy’s possible paths seem unfortunate and equally likely.
What’s riveting about Rupert’s account is his self-assuredness. Yes, he often speaks of ‘Rupert’ in the third person, an abstraction he’s removed from — but then Rupert is, after all, the ultimate ‘I am camera’. It’s a fascinating split-personality on display here — and some . . . perversely fine writing. [. . .] Cleverly, artfully done, Rupert: A Confession is no pleasant read, but an oddly seductive one. Well worthwhile.
Back on April 5, 1999, the Complete Review published its first review, giving Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory a “C” for being “too cute for its own good.” Well, 2,250 reviews and ten years later and CR is still going strong.
Michael Orthofer has a nice write up about his first decade running the site, and his desire to do even more:
The mix of books covered at the complete review remains eclectic (mostly my fault/taste), and while best-known for coverage of translated (and, occasionally, not-yet-translated) fiction, I’m more or less satisfied with the range of books covered. I’d always like to cover more — far more — but the logistics are too daunting. (The grand irony of the site for me also always remains that since it takes up so much of my time I actually read less than I otherwise might.)
He’s already averaging 225 reviews a year—for one person that’s absolutely amazing. And yes, it really is just one person:
After all these years I also figure it is time to abandon my hopes of creating an independent institutional identity for the complete review. I’ve always tried to stay in the background (and would, of course, prefer disappearing completely unrecognized behind the scenes, an entirely anonymous puppet-master), but despite my best efforts to de-personalize the site it has become futile to avoid the obvious: complete review, c’est moi. Not that it’s always been that way, not absolutely entirely, but by now I figure some ninety-five per cent of the reviews, and near as much of the weblog-content can be ascribed to me, and all of it in recent times, and so I might as well do away with any pretense of there being anything more to the complete review than me for now. (There’s always hope that the complete review-as-institution concept can be revived, but between my ‘vision’ for the site, and my taskmaster-skills … don’t count on it.) Hence one minor change: posts and reviews will now be signed ‘M.A.Orthofer’, as I might as well lay claim to (and accept blame for) them.
Congrats to Michael and best of luck for the next ten years.
We’re a bit late with the news—I swear, the Book Fair will be my excuse for everything for the next three weeks at least—but Uwe Tellkamp’s Der Turm won this year’s German Book Prize. Hasn’t been a huge amount of interest from American or British publishers (surprise!) for this 1,000 page book. Michael Orthofer is one of (if not the) first American’s to review the novel giving it a solid B+:
Der Turm is set in Dresden, in the East Germany of the 1980s, then still the German Democratic Republic. The book covers the period right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, though it moves at varying speeds across these years, lingering over particular episodes and stretches, then leaping over longer periods. [. . .]
Tellkamp offers a vast survey of East German life, even as he keeps it within relatively limited areas: school, the workplace (the hospital and the publishing house), army life. For the most part, those whose lives are described are fairly well-to-do — if not financially particularly well-off, at least relatively secure in their places, and certainly comfortable (even as that occasionally proves illusory). True, occasionally strangers are assigned a portion of their living spaces, as lines are redrawn in the houses and officialdom literally encroaches on their lives further, but most can get by relatively comfortably. Tellkamp does, however, pointedly describe the lives of the truly privileged, the nation’s favoured sons, which some of the others catch a glimpse of — an entirely different world. [. . .]
Yes, in many respects Der Turm is a glorious epic of that sad last decade of East German history, with some remarkable patches of writing and some very fine scenes. Yet it feels incomplete as a history, the pendulum swinging too far and spitefully back in a book that drips with contempt and feels too personal in its reckoning with an entire nation and system.
Michael Orthofer has a great rant over at Literary Saloon about “how not to publish translations.” His piece centers around Serbian Classics Press, a press that I’ve personally never heard of (neither had Michael, so I feel like my ignorance is excusable), but one that is bringing out Mansarda, Danilo Kis’s first novel.
The book seems to have been released . . . well, as if printing and binding it were all there was to it. The publisher is Serbian Classics Press, and with their mission of: “publishing classic and contemporary Serbian fiction, biography, literary criticism and reference works in translation, as well as original English language works by authors from the Serbian diaspora” they sound like exactly the kind of outfit we should know about. Except, of course, that we didn’t. That happens — we’re constantly learning about new publishers. But what can we learn about them and their offerings ? Yes, they have a website, but the catalogue-page doesn’t seem to have been updated in years [Ed. note: since 2004!], and we couldn’t find any information about the Kiš-title on it. [. . .]
Which leads to the second problem: not only is there no information at the publisher’s site, this book is not listed at any of the English-language Amazons. (Or Barnes & Noble.)
Imagine that, in this day and age, where every print-on-demand title is listed at every online bookseller. Here’s a book, published in New York in 2008, which you can’t buy through Amazon.com.
One of my big gripes is the way in which small and independent publishers have a tendency to sabotage their best intentions. SCP is a pretty extreme example of how not to do things—although there are others . . .
SCP’s website is incredibly embarrassing. The fact it’s four years out of date is horrendous and the presentation is totally amateurish. Really too bad. The five books listed there sound pretty interesting (as does the Kis!) and there are even excerpts! Of course, there’s no sign of distribution (which is the number one problem in independent publishing right now) and the order form is awesomely outdated—it’s a pdf you have to print and mail in along with a “check or money order.” C’mon guys, today’s world is premised upon the ability to use credit cards for everything.
Putting them aside for a moment, this is a much larger issue that missing an opportunity with a new Kis and being technologically inept. A couple years ago, I moderated a panel at the London Book Fair that included Daniel Soar from the London Review of Books. At the beginning of his bit, he admitted that he was embarrassed by how few works in translation the LRB had reviewed over the past 6 months or so. (If I remember it was something like 3-4 titles compared to 50+ from English.) One of the reasons he gave for this was the lack of context for these books. Most translations published are by authors he’d never heard of and arrive on his desk with nothing more than a two paragraph press release and a reference to author X being the “James Joyce of country Y.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing here, but it sounded like a lot of these titles looked interesting, yet without more information, it was difficult to figure out what to do with them.
Based on the relatively few books that we get in for review (some of which are devoid of jacket copy), I can see how this is a major problem for large, influential publications. It’s much easier to decide whether to review a young American author who has been appearing in lit mags and anthologies, who has been talked about by other editors and reviewers, and who may have even shown up at a number of literary events and gatherings—the context for who this author is already exists. But a book by a relatively obscure international author needs some additional information. That’s one of the reasons publishing literature in translation costs so much—you have to spend a lot more on marketing than you do for an author working in English.
The more savvy publishers become with creating websites, generating buzz, figuring out creative ways to introduce these authors to the reading public, producing informative overview essays that place an author within a broad literary tradition—the better these books will be received and will find their voice. And the more one success will help other titles. I don’t agree with it, but I understand why Barnes & Noble has a thing against literature in translation. For years they stocked translations from a handful of presses that never figured out how to best market their books. When return rates are in the hight 70% range, one starts to generalize that translations don’t sell . . . (On the flip-side, our Icelandic book—The Pets by Bragi Olafsson—will be widely stocked due to the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. And yes, I know these are different countries, types of books, etc., but in addition to credit, our book culture is all about trends and duplication.)
I hate to pick on SCP, but this is a disservice to Kis. He actually has a following, one that could be tapped and cultivated. Instead these readers are lucky to find out that Mansarda (MAO has a few things to say about that title as well) is available.
The site’s mission is pretty huge, but if this comes to fruition, this would be one of the most valuable sites on the internet for finding out about international writers and their books:
Everything you need to know about the world’s great writers and emerging voices is on this site, created by PEN, the worldwide writers’ association. We believe that great writing has the power to change your life, and to change the world.
All the content is added by you: readers and writers who want to pass on your tips and create a new global community of readers. This site is launching with a focus on writing from the Arab region. There is a world of writing out there. Tell us about it!
The paucity of info available about Arabic books has been a frequent complaint of many a publisher, so this site should make an immediate difference. The fiction section could use some better navigation, and it would be great if translators would post English samples, but whatever, there’s finally a fiction section would searching through for interesting titles. I guess my only other hope is that they develop some way of getting the word out when new info is added. (I can envision this becoming one of those sites I have bookmarked but infrequently check in on.)
In addition to fiction (which is what I naturally gravitate towards) there are sections on The People and Working With the Arabic World. Overall, kudos to the BC for putting this together. And launching it in conjunction with the London Book Fair.
We mentioned this a couple weeks back, but this morning, the Literary Saloon has a more factual follow-up to Douglas Kibbee’s claim that translations are on the rise, as evidenced by the increase in coverage for translations in the New York Times Book Review.
Michael Orthofer—who both questioned the veracity of this statement and the idea that a review of a translation a week was a success—compiled some stats on the last three issues:
Of the 62 books reviewed in all a mere two — Ogawa Yoko’s The Diving Pool and Michael Krüger’s The Executor — were originally written in a foreign language (and they only received the ‘books-in-brief’-treatment).
I have a complicated relationship to all of this, in part because I feel that Kibbee’s kind of right—things are getting better for translations, he just chose an odd way of “proving” it—and that it’s not necessarily the mandate/responsibility of the NYTBR to cover a certain number of literary translations. True, it’s unfortunate that so few foreign voices make their way into the Book Review, and as a publisher who is always scrapping for any review coverage we can get, I wish the Times reviewed only literary translations, but I don’t feel like the Times is unilaterally hostile towards all books in translations.
(I’m sure many bloggers will disagree with me about this, but I really believe that what gets reviewed is tied up in a more complicated dynamic including who the publishers are, what’s hot, how publishers publicize, etc., etc. It’s just not as simple as translation vs. English . . . It may fall more into the realm of large publisher—with all the clout and organizational resources associated with that—versus small—and often disorganized or too busy to focus—and since large publishers have the means to really promote their books, and since so few are works in translation, these statistics turn out the way they do. I’d be interested in seeing what the percentages are for coverage of translated books from commercial presses versus translated books from indie presses. I suspect that a healthy percentage of books reviewed in the NYTBR from independent presses are literature in translation—but that the number of reviews of books from independent, or university, presses is rather modest. In shorthand, it’s complicated . . . )
One thing that came up at the Translation Conference panel was the relative lack of translator-reviewers. At a panel that took place a few weeks ago, representatives from the New York Times and The New Republic commented on how it can be difficult to find a good reviewer familiar enough with the context and tradition surrounding a particular work of international literature to be capable of writing a really thoughtful, interesting review.
That may be a bit of a cop-out, but it is absolutely true that there are far more American writers reviewing these days than there are translators . . . Not sure in the end if this would make a difference, but if there were a couple dozen very active translator-reviewers out there pitching books, capable of writing about a work from Brazil without relying solely on the English version and flap-copy bio of the author, maybe there would be an overall increase in the amount of general coverage of translations. . . .
As Michael Orthofer—who has been praising this book and its break-out potential for quite some time—points out, the book hasn’t been receiving a lot of attention on this side of the Atlantic. (The Dalkey site references pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Bookslut.) This did make our Top 10 Translations of 2007 list, and is a brilliant book that’s definitely worth reading. (We probably would’ve reviewed it, but haven’t received a copy yet, and I don’t want to base a review on my memory of reading it in manuscript form.)
I want to echo Orthofer’s sentiment that hopefully this paucity of attention will change with the release of the book in the UK. Of course, Thorne points out some of the potential obstacles in the opening paragraph of his review:
It is hard to imagine Omega Minor, Paul Verhaeghen’s extraordinary new novel, having the same success in England as it has enjoyed in Germany, the Netherlands and the author’s native Belgium. Indeed, it seems likely that the author has translated the book himself not as a display of his polymath abilities but because he might have found it hard to find another translator prepared to take on a 700-page novel about cognitive psychology, quantum physics, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. It would be philistine not to admire the sheer ambition of the book, especially when the market for serious fiction is under endless assault, but the author has a number of quirks that may alienate some readers. Foremost is a bizarre fixation with ejaculation, prompting phrases such as “pearly liquid”, “creamy harvest”, “frothy broth” and, most imaginatively, “an acrobatic snake snapping at – but missing – its own tail”. There are dozens more.
Still, the review ends where it should, praising the qualities of this ambitious novel:
Omega Minor is undoubtedly a curate’s egg, but few recent novels rival its richness. And there is something admirable about an author who challenges not just the structural limitations of the novel, but also the limitations of our understanding of the universe. For all its flaws, this is an uncommonly intellectually stretching- and satisfying – experience.
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .