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.
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns
Country: South Africa
Publisher: Tin House
Why This Book Should Win: It explores a complex web of human relationships at a familial and national level without ever leaving a single room; and because, as Liesl Schillinger says in her review of the novel published in the NYT Book Review, “Books like Agaat . . . are the reason people read novels, and the reason authors write them.”
Today’s entry is from Gwen Dawson, who runs the always excellent Literary License blog. And who will be joining the BTBA judging panel for 2012.
At the beginning of this epic novel, seventy-year-old Milla de Wet is confined to her bed. Once the strong and competent owner of a successful farm inherited from her mother, Milla suffers from A.L.S. and now is left with only the ability to blink her eyes and, after a while, not even that. Milla is entirely dependent on the ministrations of Agaat, her devoted house servant, who wordlessly promises Milla “the best-managed death in history.” It is 1996 in South Africa, just two years after the demise of apartheid.
From this confined vantage point, Milla narrates her adult life story, beginning with her troubled marriage to the dashing, if agriculturally-challenged, Jak de Wet in 1947. Soon after she and Jak settle on her farm, Milla decides to take in and raise the abused young daughter of a farm laborer, renaming the girl Agaat. Long unable to have a child of her own, Milla eventually gives birth to a son named Jakkie, marginalizing Agaat’s position in the family. Over time, Milla and Agaat develop a complex co-dependency, as do Jakkie and Agaat, while Jak becomes jealous of Agaat’s hold over both his wife and his son. Agaat forms the center of a decades-long, multi-dimensional game of tug-o-war: “a pivot she was, a kingpin, you’d felt for a while now how the parts gyrated around her, faster and faster, even though she was the least.”
Agaat is about many things, including marriage, parenting, friendship, sickness, and death. Politically-minded readers will find plenty of support for interpreting the novel as an allegory for apartheid, while those with more domestic interests will appreciate the details on embroidery, ecologically-sensitive farming practices, and home-based nursing procedures. Perhaps _Agaat_’s most important lesson concerns the importance of communication to achieving lasting change. The best education and carefully constructed systems cannot bridge the gap between master and servant, between white and black. Rather, true understanding is possible only after years of empathetic communication. As Milla nears death, she and Agaat have finally approached this kind of understanding:
[The doctor’s] face looms above mine. He looks at my eyes as if they were the eyes of an octopus, as if he’s not quite sure where an octopus’s eyes are located, as if he doesn’t know what an octopus sees. He shines a little light into my face, he swings it from side to side. I look at him hard, but seeing, he cannot see.
Agaat catches my eye. Wait, let me see, she says.
[The doctor] stands aside. He shakes his head.
Agaat’s face is above me, her cap shines white, she looks into my eyes. I blink them for her so that she can see what I think. The effrontery! They think that if you don’t stride around on your two legs and make small talk about the weather, then you’re a muscle mass with reflexes and they come and flash lights in your face. Tell the man he must clear out.
A small flicker ripples across Agtaat’s face. Ho now hopalong! it means. Her apron creaks as she straightens up. Her translation is impeccable.
She says thank you doctor. She says doctor is welcome to leave now, she’s feeling better. She says thank you for the help, thank you for the oxygen, we can carry on here by ourselves again now.
I close my eyes. He must think she’s crazy.
Again the fingers snapping in front of my face.
She’s conscious, really, doctor, you can leave her alone now, she’s just tired, when she shuts her eyes like that then I know. Everything’s in order, she says, she just wants to sleep now. I know, I know her ways.
Milla’s disease has the potential to reduce this nearly 600-page novel into an exercise in claustrophobia, but, instead, Van Niekerk has created a work of stunning breadth and emotional potency. Milla’s second-person narration is liberally broken up by her diary entries, which Agaat has decided to read to Milla during her last days, and by italicized paragraphs of Milla’s stream-of-consciousness musings. Van Niekerk is a poet as well as a novelist, and her considerable poetic abilities are on display throughout the novel. Likewise, Michiel Heyns’s masterful work yields an English translation with all the elegant power of the original language. These various elements come together in Agaat to create an unforgettable reading experience that transcends the lives of its four primary characters to implicate the broader world.
Over at the Tin House blog (which is relatively new and very solid), South African author Michiel Heyns has an interesting essay about creativity and translation:
I have just sent off the first draft of a translation of a 130,000-word novel, Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (30 Nights in Amsterdam). By chance, on the same day, I receive a Call for Papers from the University of Swansea in the UK for a conference on “The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition.” The call for papers kicks off with the following paragraph:
The recent ‘creative turn’ in translation studies has challenged notions of translation as a derivative and uncreative activity which is inferior to ‘original’ writing. Commentators have drawn attention to the creative processes involved in the translation of texts, and suggested a rethinking of translation as a form of creative writing. Hence there is growing critical and theoretical interest in translations undertaken by literary authors.
The topic interests me, because I have published four novels and three literary translations (not counting this latest, as yet unpublished one), and I have from time to time asked myself, in an informal sort of way, about “the creative processes involved in the translation of texts”: is it in fact “a form of creative writing”? And if so, how does it differ from the more traditional kind?
Writing this, it occurs to me that the word “recreate” encapsulates the problem: for if it means simply rendering the work in another language, then it’s more a question of transliteration or transposition than creation; but if it means “re-create” as in creating anew, then one is stressing the creative contribution of the translator: the translation, then, carries the stamp of the translator as unmistakably as the original carries the stamp of the author.
But of course translation is also, inescapably, a second-order activity, derived very directly from the creation of the author. If the translation is a creative act, it is yet unlike the writing of a novel in that it does not require that most difficult of creative feats, which is to create from nothing. A novelist creates and peoples a world; a translator reports back on that world to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to that world.
I like his take on this (although the bit about author’s craving a “faithful rendering” when their books are translated feels a bit reductive), and his novel, The Children’s Day looks really interesting as well.
Just in time for BookExpo, the summer fiction issue of Bookforum is now available in print and online.
This year’s special fiction issue is all about fiction forward:
We invited dozens of publishers to submit excerpts from books that will be published in the fall and winter, and we selected six of the very best. But “Fiction Forward” doesn’t refer just to this peek at forthcoming work. Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves are constantly moving forward, taking in the world apace and recalibrating to accommodate fresh news. Forward is also the direction in which good fiction takes its readers. In thrall to a gifted storyteller, we can discover—often with an astonishing degree of specificity—just who we, individually, collectively, are becoming. Even when addressing distant events and people, fiction speaks to us directly about what it means to be alive today and tomorrow.
The six featured authors—Ryan Boudinot, Michelle Huneven, Terrence Holt, Xiaoda Xiao, Michiel Heyns, and Holly Goddard Jones—all look pretty interesting, and each piece is paired with a graphic artist, and introduced by another writer. (I like Junot Diaz’s super-enthusiastic bit about Terrence Holt: “There is no one in the wide sea of English who writes like him (as far as I know); no one who is so profound and mysterious, so searingly human and so implacably apocalyptic. I always describe Holt as Melville + Poe + Borges but with a heart far more capacious than any of them were capable of mustering.”)
In addition to these six excerpts and the usual collection of great fiction and nonfiction reviews by very talented reviewers, there’s also a nice long piece on recent publications by African authors. Looking at four recent publications — Gods and Soldiers, edited by Rob Spillman, The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Secret Son by Laila Lalami, and the NYRB reprint of Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih — James Gibbons’s piece is both informative and interesting:
Are we in the midst of an “African literary renaissance,” as Spillman contends, an el boom from the other side of the Atlantic? Perhaps, but the surge of African writing is tellingly different from the Latin American explosion of the ’60s. Besides being identified with magic realism (though not all its writers practiced it), the literature of the Latin American boom was already formed within the region’s own institutions and coteries before being packaged in translation and exported. The new African writing is emphatically not homegrown. Forged in the crucible of globalization, it is a literature largely of displacement and exile. Most striking in scanning the biographical notes in Gods and Soldiers is how few of its contributors, especially the younger ones, live in the countries in which they were born. Nearly all the Francophone writers have settled in France, and the typical English-language writer has an American MFA and professorship.
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