26 September 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.

I live in Berlin, in a neighborhood with a chronically understaffed post office, so books on their way to me from the United States are usually in for an adventure.

A package from Archipelago Books, example, arrived dripping wet, even though it hadn’t rained in Berlin for a week. Luckily, the texts themselves were all intact, and a little water damage has only lent a pleasant air of world-weariness to the appearances.

Another package I received, this time from Vintage, had been opened, its contents shoved into my mailbox, and the envelope stuffed crookedly in after them. Is that even legal?, I wondered, are they even allowed to open my stuff? Turns out, yes, but only is the stuff is books. Since most of them were about hard-boiled detectives, I figured they were used to some rough handling and didn’t feel too sorry for them.

But the best (by which I mean most unusual) delivery arrived this week: an absolutely enormous blue bag bearing the seal of the Belgian post, one gaping end knotted shut with plastic cords. It was the sort of bag I imagine Santa Claus would use if he were a Belgian mailman. For a moment I hoped that there would just be one giant book inside, but instead there was another, slightly smaller blue bag, tidily wrapped and stamped by Sweden Post.

The treasure inside this strange blue matryoshka was more than worth the trouble it took to wrestle it out. Inside the blue Swedish bag, surrounded by what I assume used to be an envelope but which now resembled something closer to the insides of a sofa after they’ve been torn up by a very eager puppy, were eight books from Open Letter, dusty but otherwise unharmed. Among them were several titles I’d been looking forward to for some time: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, and of course the splendid anthology that’s been getting so much attention on this blog recently, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.

Of course, no matter how bizarre the story of a book’s arrival at my front door might have been, its importance fades as soon as the experience of the text itself takes over. One of those half-drowned Archipelago titles, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, has proved a moving and memorable read. One of the few novels from sub-Saharan Africa to be eligible for this year’s BTBA, Our Lady of the Nile centers on an elite girls’ boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, shortly before a wave of ethnic violence breaks out. I recently reviewed the novel for Music & Literature, where I wrote of it as both a collective coming-of-age story and a prelude to genocide.

The book I’m reading currently, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, was unusual in that it arrived at my apartment completely unscathed. It’s the first novel by Erpenbeck that I’ve had a chance to read. It begins with the death of an eight-month old baby and traces the ramifications this death later has on the child’s family. But then, in the first of the book’s many “Intermezzo”s, the baby is resurrected: time rewinds itself, the baby is saved in the nick of time. She’s given a second chance at life, allowed to grow up for a few more years. When she finds another death, she is resurrected again, and so on; the main character, whose name we learn only at the end of the novel, keeps dying and keeps not being permitted to die, until she has lived through nearly the entire twentieth century.

A serious (in my opinion, unfortunately humorless) meditation on death, The End of Days was striking to me not only for its compelling premise, but also for the quality of its translation. Susan Bernofsky has produced an exceptionally powerful English version of this very German text; the book’s prose, just like its cover when it arrived in my Berlin mailbox, showed no sign of having made a transatlantic journey.

28 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate, published by New Directions.

There’s some kind of summer flu-plague bug going around at the office here, so we’re short on humor and personal anecdotes. Also, Rochester is a city of downpours and flash flooding and even road-caving today, so it’s a great day to cut all pretense and just read about reading books. Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.

Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.

For the rest of the review, go here.

28 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.

Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.

Of course Anne falls in love with Julien, who, of course, leaves often without any notice or indication of when he will return. The reader quickly gets a sense that Julien is involved in some form of smuggling and burglary, but always wins women through lascivious gifts so they will overlook the details of his existence.

Anne, as expected, waits around a little too long and cares a little too much about Julien, causing her to withstand the prison-like conditions Julien has placed her in. That is, Anne has broken out of one prison only to willingly admit herself into a second created by Julien. To add fuel to the fire, the people she imposes on are only deferential when Julien is away or when Anne provides money. As Anne describes,

I realize that my hosts feel a greedy sort of servility toward him, hidden under their friendly tone of complicity, poised between the two extremes of respect for the guy who knows how to steal, and condescension for the guy you’re doing a favor for.

Eventually Julien is apprehended by the law and Anne is able to rediscover freedom, although through a man she is not attracted to and which she uses to hide the fruits of her own resorts to burglary.

You have probably encountered slightly different versions of this story before, but Astragal is worth the re-exploration for Sarrazin’s frank yet poetical prose and lens of a life that cannot be led by the faint of heart. Astragal would not exist if it were not for Sarrazin’s tumultuous life. Like the characters, she was young, imprisoned, and died at 29 due to a botched surgery. (Is anyone reminded of Clarice?)

As Patty Smith explains in her introduction, Astragal easily becomes a travel companion not only for its familiar love story, but also for its honesty on the daily life of someone hypersensitive to their relationship and also to physical pain, and who is now only identified by that relationship or pain.

Due to the focus on slightly seedy characters living under the radar of the law, there is also something scandalous and addictive about Astragal. The reader is left to wonder why Anne never tries to escape from Julien’s arranged prisons or his life of crime. However, Sarrazin counters these feelings by leading the reader through Anne’s growth and maturation—“Little by little, I get organized, I have a steady income, shopping lists . . .” Despite maturity, Astragal leaves us to wonder whether we are all imprisoned through our loves and relationships.

14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on César Aira’s Conversations, translated by Katherine Silver and out from New Directions.

After a wild World Cup of Literature ride, what better way to wind down or frustrations or victorious cries than to talk about them (or bite each other over them)? And because I lack the attention span to get all existential and tie the title of Conversations to something deep and meaningful—and because I happen to have a bit more self dignity than usual today: just look at the brightly colored word bubbles bleeding into each other. Aren’t you mesmerized?

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

14 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a uniquely bogus set of facts that feels as realistic as waking up each morning and going to work, despite their fantastical and unrealistic qualities.

The protagonist opens the work by telling us that he entertains himself by remembering the daily conversations he has had with his friends. Each night, he relives those conversations while drifting off to sleep. His life goal is focused on engaging in a level of conversation that is “consistently high” to the point of obsession, leaving the reader truly concerned for his mental health.

Once the protagonist’s world is established, Aira dives into a conversation between the protagonist and his friend about a movie shown on television. The ones “they show on cable channels without commercial interruptions” prevents the viewer time to run to the restroom or kitchen, resulting in voids in the story lines which are imperative to the plot of the forgettable film. From here, the protagonist has a debate over the film starring a poor man with a Rolex watch. The protagonist’s position is that the Rolex is an atrocity to the realism of the film, while the friend argues that this is merely a minor point to be ignored. The friend posits that the protagonist should just suspend reality. Of course, this is an impossibility to the protagonist since conversations and their accuracy are of the utmost importance to him.

In typical Aira style, we go from hyper-intellectual propositions to absurdly hilarious arguments of “logic” that are deeply rooted in the protagonist’s psyche. For example, a view of the protagonist’s reaction to the friend’s view of the film:

[I]f he did not understand the difference between the actor and the character in a movie, he was an imbecile. And if he was an imbecile, I had no choice but to lose all intellectual respect for him, and which was worse, it meant that our conversations were wiped out as far as everyone about them that was good and gratifying for me. . . . In order to appreciate the magnitude of my disappointment, I should explain just how important conversations are for me. At this stage of my life, they have become the single most important thing. I have allowed them to occupy this privileged position, and have cultivated them as a raison d’être, almost like my life work. They constitute my only worthwhile occupation, and I have devoted myself to enhance their value, treasuring them through their reconstruction and miniaturization on my secret nocturnal alter. Hence, if I lose the day, I also lose the night.

From here, the novella quickly strays from “reality” and into a further level of Aira’s imagination without the reader noticing—also typical Aira. As more and more facts of the cable movie are described between the protagonist and his friend, and the protagonist continues to present bias comments of his allegedly correct interpretation of the facts, the reader suddenly finds himself watching the movie. Here the novella has shifted from the conversation to the action of the film. The film itself is incredibly unrealistic [other world being, toxic algae, secret caves, CIA] but somehow seems more realistic than the conversation among the friends. Perhaps Aira makes this shift to allow the reader to choose which party has the correct interpretation, or Aira is playing a game with the reader on the boundaries of reality. Adding to the seamless commingling of the conversation and the movie events are the protagonist’s concessions to what he maybe missed when taking a break himself. The protagonist eventually admits: “All you had to do was blink and you were lost.” Here Aira causes the reader to ponder whether the exploration of the unrealistic sheds light onto reality.

As for the translation itself, Conversations is another Aira brought to us through Katherine Silver. Her translation is beautifully composed in that I often forgot that I was reading a translation, and instead felt as if I were navigating Aira’s inner most thoughts at the point of their conception. What is particularly interesting about this translation is the premise of the text—each person can take a set of facts and interpret them differently based on their perception. So one is left to wonder whether this happened in the translation of the text from Spanish to English. I believe this question is exactly what Aira was going for, i.e., the reader should now perceive the world in a way that leaves them to question the thoughts and ideas they missed resulting in variations of interpretation. But, isn’t this inquiry an inherent byproduct of translation? “Everything is fiction. . . . Or: everything is reality. Which is the same thing.”

In closing, I agree with Owen Rowe’s statement, “An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept,” appearing in the last Three Percent Aira Review. Everyone has a lens through which he or she perceives the world and Aira expertly exploits this fact in each of his works.

19 May 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm and simple until the appearance of their neighbors’ cat, Chibi. Warmth and caring slowly seep into their relationship, with each other and with Chibi, due to the cat’s appearance. Gradually their lives change in subtle yet impactful ways. Finding out they have to leave their home coincides with an abrupt end to Chibi’s visits, and suddenly their newly established lifestyle is in disarray. The narrator describes his life experiences, relationships, and surroundings with simple clarity and beautiful awareness. At one point, as an attempted distraction from loss, the narrator immerses himself in a book on geometry and his reflection on this tactic illustrates his voice throughout the novel:

But perhaps I had embarked on this line of thought merely to distract myself from my own anger and grief. It’s not as if I was actually prepared to waste my time attempting to perform triangular surveying. I was merely seeking comfort in the thought that something as serenely transparent as an ancient surveying method might be applicable to this place of loss and bewilderment where I now found myself.

Having published numerous books of poetry, Hiraide’s poetic experience shines through in his prose as well. His language is gentle and deliberate, pulling the reader in with meticulous details, a style that fits perfectly with the generally peaceful course of the characters’ lives. While focused on one clear plotline, Hiraide’s storytelling, translated to English by Eric Selland, incorporates smaller transformations and events along the way that give The Guest Cat even more depth. The narrator’s description of fate at the beginning foreshadows the set up of the novel, both stylistically and contextually:

As it surges forward people flee, but ultimately they succumb to the water’s momentum. Nothing—no one escapes.
Living beings, in turning a corner, or in producing the movements required to enter the crack in a certain partially opened door, are endowed with certain properties, something which produces its own little river. These daily movements are repeated, and a certain tendency—a certain current if you will—is generated. Then this minor current, because it is a current, must at some point flow into a larger river.

The seemingly minor subplots of Hiraide’s The Guest Cat merge throughout the novel to create a forceful narrative that will captivate any reader.

29 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After winning the Best Translated Book Award for the second year in a row, László Krasznahorkai stopped by the New Directions offices and made a short acceptance speech.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

László Krasznahorkai becomes the first repeat winner, and Elisa Biagini and her three translators take home the poetry award in this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

After much deliberation, Seiobo There Below, Krasznahorkai’s follow-up to last year’s BTBA winner, Satantango, won the 2014 BTBA for Fiction. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and published by New Directions, the jury praised this novel for its breadth, stating “out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history.”

The jury also named two runners-up: The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray and published by Yale University Press; and A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter, and published by Other Press.

On the poetry side of things, this year’s winner is The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky, and published by Chelsea Editions.

According to the jury, “from the first, these surreal, understated poems create an uncanny physical space that is equally domestic, disturbing, and luminous, their airy structure leaving room for the reader-guest to receive their hospitality and offer something in return (the Italian ospite meaning both ‘guest’ and ‘host’). The poet’s and translators’ forceful language presses us to ‘attend and rediscover’ the quotidian and overdetermined realities of, as Angelina Oberdan explains in her introduction, ‘the self, the other, the body, and the private rituals of our lives.’”

The two poetry runners-up are Claude Royet-Journoud’s Four Elemental Bodies, translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, published by Burning Deck, and Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, and published by BOA Editions.

As in recent years, thanks to Amazon.com’s giving program, $20,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the winning authors and translators.

Krasznahorkai is the first author—or translator—to win the prize more than once. His novel Satantango, translated by Georges Szirtes and also published by New Directions, won last spring. Seiobo There Below is the sixth of his works to appear in English, the others being Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, War and War, Animalinside, and The Bill.

The Guest in the Wood is the first collection of Elisa Biagini’s poetry to appear in English translation, despite her reputation in her home country of Italy. In addition to writing poetry in both Italian and English, Biagini is a translator herself, having translated Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and others into Italian. She also edited an anthology of contemporary American poetry.

This is the seventh iteration of the Best Translated Book Awards, which launched at the University of Rochester in the winter of 2007. Over the past seven years, the prize has brought attention to hundreds of stellar works of literature in translation published by dozens of presses. Earlier this month, at the London Book Fair, the BTBA received the “International Literary Translation Initiative Prize” as part of the inaugural International Book Industry Excellence Awards.

To celebrate this year’s winners and the award itself, all supporters of international literature are invited to The Brooklyneer (220 West Houston, NYC) from 6pm-9pm on Friday, May 2nd for drinks and appetizers. This event is open to the public.

The nine judges who made up this year’s fiction committee are: George Carroll, West Coast sales rep; Monica Carter, Salonica; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Sarah Gerard, Bomb Magazine; Elizabeth Harris, translator; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; Michael Orthofer, Complete Review; Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books; and, Jenn Witte, Skylight Books.

And the five poets and translators who made up the poetry committee are: Stefania Heim, Bill Martin, Rebecca McKay, Daniele Pantano, and Anna Rosenwong.

28 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you already know, the winner of this year’s BTBA for fiction is Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Below is a short piece by the BTBA fiction jury explaining the reasons behind their selection and pointing out two runners-up.

We are very pleased to award the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for fiction to Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Fans of the award will no doubt note that this is the second year in a row that it has been given to Krazsnahorkai, with last year’s honors going to his first novel, Satantango, translated by George Szirtes. This fact was taken into account by the judges, as was our desire to honor writing from a wide range of geographies, cultures, and languages, and these are all things that we hope will be continued to be accounted for going forward. But in the end one thing was clear: out of a shortlist of ten contenders that did not lack for ambition, Seiobo There Below truly overwhelmed us with its range—this is a book that discusses in minute detail locations from all around the globe, including Japan, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as delving into the consciousnesses and practices of individuals from across 2,000 years of human history. The book also takes bold steps forward in terms of how we think of the form of the novel, and our expectation of how a novel works and what it can attempt to do. In its scope, its depth, and its amazing precision, we found Seiobo There Below to be a work of rare genius. We were likewise very enthusiastic about Mulzet’s translation, which is astonishing for its beauty and its technical skill. In this book of nearly 500 pages, filled with sentences that range on for pages at a time, as well as all sorts of specialized jargon and obscure details, Mulzet doesn’t hit a false note, a truly amazing accomplishment. We must give due congratulations to her great work, as well as register our appreciation to her editors at New Directions, who surely must share in the credit.

As much as we admire Seiobo There Below, it was not an easy decision to elevate this book above our two runners-up, and there was much in-depth discussion and passionate arguments in favor of all three finalists. Although there can only be one winner, it is important to us to honor the range of styles, geographies, languages, and cultures that made it so challenging to select the 2013 honoree. Thus we offer these words of praise for our two runners-up:

We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.

We were equally enamored of Minae Mizumura’s work in adapting Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights to contemporary Japan, translated most spectacularly by Juliet Winters Carpenter. As the novel continues to evolve as an art form, it is essential that it take stock of its legacy and find ways to rejuvenate its classics. Mizumura does not only this but also interrogates the idea of the “true novel“—the Western novel in the tradition of Flaubert, Dickens, et al.—against the traditional Japanese novel. As have many great Japanese writers before her, she reaches into the rich intersection between East and West to create something distinctly Japanese yet global in scope, a satisfying investigation of individual characters, the landscape of her nation, and various novelistic traditions. This wonderful novel marks the entry of a major talent into the English language, and we are proud to honor Mizumura’s long overdue arrival.

24 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Sara Shuman on Two Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández, translated (respectively) by Constance Garnett and Esther Allen, and out from New Directions.

Two Crocodiles, as the review also explains, is a short book comprised of two stories—one from Dostoevsky, the other from Hernández—with the same title, but with very different contents.

Sara, in turn, is new to the Three Percent fray, and stands out somewhat for her Ph.D. in Public Health (and is an editor for a public health journal). However, she is a great lover of world literature, and is no stranger to the likes of Daniel Sada, Laurent Binet, and Mia Cuoto, to name a few.

Here’s the beginning of Sara’s review:

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The Crocodile,” hence Two Crocodiles.

The edition is slim and aesthetically pleasing; it fits in your jacket pocket, making it perfect for reading on the subway and impressing the people around you with its beauty and your class. Flip it over and you even find endorsements from David Foster Wallace (re: Dostoevsky) and Roberto Bolaño (re: Hernández). Sold.

I won’t compare and contrast the writing and themes from The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident to Dostoevsky’s more famous pieces (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment), partly because it’s been done enough already, and partly because the goal of this book seems to be to juxtapose (or prove connected) the similarly-named stories of two very different authors from two very different literary worlds. In turn, Felisberto isn’t as well known as Dostoevsky, but literary giants Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino all credit him as a major influence of their own work.

For the rest of the review, go here.

24 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The Crocodile,” hence Two Crocodiles.

The edition is slim and aesthetically pleasing; it fits in your jacket pocket, making it perfect for reading on the subway and impressing the people around you with its beauty and your class. Flip it over and you even find endorsements from David Foster Wallace (re: Dostoevsky) and Roberto Bolaño (re: Hernández). Sold.

I won’t compare and contrast the writing and themes from The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident to Dostoevsky’s more famous pieces (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment), partly because it’s been done enough already, and partly because the goal of this book seems to be to juxtapose (or prove connected) the similarly-named stories of two very different authors from two very different literary worlds. In turn, Felisberto isn’t as well known as Dostoevsky, but literary giants Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino all credit him as a major influence of their own work.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident

Ivan Matveitch and his wife are both ridiculous. In the opening paragraph we learn that Ivan is a cultured man, planning a trip to Europe “not so much for the sake of his health as for the improvement of his mind,” and excited to see a crocodile. Ivan’s wife, upon seeing the crocodile exclaims “Why, I thought it was something different,” clearly disappointed by the lack of a spectacle. The family friend and narrator of the story, Semyon, explains her crocodile-disappointment to the reader: “most probably she thought it was made of diamonds.”

Two pages later Ivan is ingested by the crocodile, where he stays for the remainder of the book, ordering Semyon to do his bidding, making plans for his wife’s social calendar, imaging his future fame, and criticizing the quality of Russian-made clothing. And while Ivan has no trouble causing Semyon to suffer with multiple requests and insults, he is also considers himself a real humanitarian, deciding not to adjust his position inside the crocodile—in order to prevent the creature from suffering.

Ivan to Semyon, from inside the crocodile:

“But I will prove that even lying like a log—nay, that only lying like a log one can revolutionize the lot of mankind. All the great ideas and movements of our newspapers and magazines have evidently been the work of men who were lying like logs; that is why they call them divorced from the realities of life – but what does that matter, their saying that! I am constructing now a complete system of my own, and you wouldn’t believe how easy it is! You have only to creep into a secluded corner or into a crocodile, to shut your eyes, and you immediately devise a perfect millennium for mankind. When you went to work this afternoon I set to work at once and have already invented three systems, I am now preparing the fourth. It is true that at first one must refute everything that has gone before, but from the crocodile it is so easy to refute it; besides, it all becomes clearer, seen from the inside of a crocodile . . . There are some drawbacks, though small ones, in my position, however; it is somewhat damp here and covered with a sort of slime; moreover, there is rather a smell of India-rubber exactly like the smell of my old galoshes. That is all, there are no other drawbacks.”

Felisberto Hernández, The Crocodile

In Hernández’s story, a pianist turned women’s hosiery salesmen uses crocodile tears to increase sales during hard times. The tears on demand are likely a reflection of an inner melancholy; New Directions describes the story as a “heartbreaker.” Yes, there is something unsettling about the narrator’s ability to cry on demand, but the recognition that there is something inside of many of us that would prompt us to use the same strategy may be more unnerving than heartbreaking.

“I longed to leave that shop, that city, that life. I thought about my country and about many other things. And suddenly, just as I was beginning to calm down, I had an idea. What would happen if I started crying right in front of all these people? It struck me as a very violent thing to do, but I’d been wanting to do something out of the ordinary, to put the world to the test, for a long time. I also needed to prove to myself that I was capable of great violence. And before I could change my mind I sat down in a little chair backed up against the counter and with all those people around me I put my hands to my face and began emitting sobbing noise. Almost simultaneously, a woman let out a loud cry and said, “A man is weeping.”

While these two stories have little in common beyond their name, they do offer the reader an opportunity to explore two lesser-known works from influential writers.

10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

The central axis of the book is a road: Calle Bonorino, with a rich neighborhood of apartments and shops at one end and a shantytown at the other. Maxi, a high schooler from the rich end, helps the trashpickers and cardboard collectors from the shantytown cart their booty home. His foil is Cabezas, a police inspector gone rogue after his daughter is killed:

The gulf between the two men was evident in the forms of their respective enterprises, which although superposed were incompatible. Maxi’s was linear, an adventure open to improvisation, like a path disappearing into the distance. The inspector’s enterprise, by contrast, resembled the deciphering of a structure.

Add in drug dealers (“proxidine” gives its user the sense that all distance has been abolished), rich families employing shantytown maids, and a suspicious priest, and all the elements are in place for a glorious and confusing mess. At the climax, in an epochal rainstorm, details are literally flooded out.

So much for the plot. But geography is not just a metaphor in Shantytown; the characters themselves can’t see details clearly. Maxi seems to be emotionally dulled or turned inward, perhaps on the autistic spectrum; he tells his love interest (although even that is weirdly deflected, in a mirror): “Either you think about other people, or you pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t do both at the same time.” Aira the narrator can, though—and he frequently puts the narrative on hold for thematic mini-essays:

Outsiders never went there [the shantytown], for a number of reasons, which all came down to one thing: fear. It’s true that there was no real reason why outsiders would want to go there in the first place. But that was a part of the fear. And fear is the key to all places: social, geographical, even imaginary. It is the matrix of places, bringing them into existence and making it possible to move from one to another. Being or not being in a place depends on a complex system of actions, and it is well known that action engenders and nourishes fear.

It’s this narrative perspective, self-aware but never cheaply ironic, that makes Aira such a blast to read. Aira has written scores of short novels in Spanish; New Directions has published nine translations so far, with a tenth due later this year. Aira fans thus get to witness the larger adventure of Aira’s narrative invention itself—and this book in particular has a lot to say on that theme. Late in the novel, Cabezas feels trapped: “He had to keep fleeing forward, but to where?” Aira’s compositional technique—never changing anything once it is set down, only adding later deflections and specifications—is referred to as “flight forward”; I’ll bet this is the source of that phrase.

Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Aira’s claim is similar:

People always assume that to improvise is to act without thinking. But if you do something on an impulse, or because you feel like it, or just like that, without knowing why, it’s still you doing it, and you have a history that has led to that particular point in your life, so it’s not really a thoughtless act, far from it; you couldn’t have given it any more thought: you’ve been thinking it out since you were born.

Aira’s worlds always have something of the noir to them. We’re always trying to decipher the structures, get things down in black and white; we’re often frustrated, yet still compelled to follow the thinnest, most unpromising narrative thread towards a distant possible exit. At least there aren’t always bodies piling up.

The world is full of moral ambiguity, with no clear good or bad. Stiffs (and occasionally corpses) continue to pile up left and right. That’s just the daily news—hell, it’s the whole world, whether it’s a geopolitical or a neighborhood clusterfuck. So the narrative voice is what makes The Mongolian Conspiracy and Shantytown noir? But the pull of the voice applies to César Aira’s other novels, to half the books I read—it doesn’t even have to be a tale of crime, just something human and murky, with a faint light of hope.

Maybe noir doesn’t really mean anything after all. Maybe nothing does. Maybe that’s the whole point.

10 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is the continuation of a larger piece by Owen Rowe, today on César Aira’s Shantytown, translated by Chris Andrews, out from New Directions.

Owen (Matt) Rowe is a writer, editor, and translator (from Portuguese and Italian) based in Port Townsend, Washington. Stay tuned for his upcoming transformations into bookseller and audiobook entrepreneur. As already mentioned, this is the second part of a combined review (the first part was on Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy). All I can say is that the cover for Shantytown is super, super cool.

Here’s the beginning of this part of the review:

In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing. (Of course we are reading the words of Chris Andrews. This is his fifth Aira translation; he has perfected a beautifully baroque, rambling English to represent Aira’s Spanish.) An Aira novel is characterized by an intellectual obsession, usually with some abstract concept, like “twins” (in The Hare) or “originality” (in Váramo). Around this abstraction—which is never named outright—Aira spins a plot that lets him explore it in many aspects; the novels work best when the plot goes wildly far afield but continues to resonate with the concept in deep and unexpected ways. In Shantytown, the concept is something like “sensitivity,” in the broad and multiple senses of emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, awareness of surroundings. A noir plot, where nothing is clear and everything is suspect, fits this theme well: the reader is forever on the run, fleeing forward with Aira, trying to get a fix on what’s happening.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Owen Rowe on The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernai, translated by Katherine Silver, and out from New Directions.

Owen (Matt) Rowe is a writer, editor, and translator (from Portuguese and Italian) based in Port Townsend, Washington. Stay tuned for his upcoming transformations into bookseller and audiobook entrepreneur. This is technically the first of two reviews (hence the Aira reference in the first paragraph), and Owen’s Shantytown review will run Saturday or Monday to keep it all groovy and together. But for now, here’s the beginning of the Bernai half of things:

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

For the rest of this first part, go here.

7 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy (Mexico, 1969) and César Aira’s Shantytown (originally published in 2001 in Argentina) can both be labeled “noir,” there’s something funny going on. Both are translations from Spanish, published late in 2013 by New Directions, but the similarities end about there. Does the label mean anything useful anymore, or is there a better way to describe these books and their merits?

As near as I can make out, the essential elements of noir are 1) there’s no clear good or bad, just shades of gray and 2) the bodies pile up so fast everyone (reader, protagonists) loses track. As a corollary to these two axioms, the central mystery is often left unsolved, or replaced by a larger and murkier one—so readers with a taste for the traditional pleasures of the whodunit will go hungry. But fortunately there’s element 3) it’s done in a tone or voice so compelling that the most grisly and relentless events become entertaining, sometimes moving, even funny. Bernal and Aira both meet all three criteria, though in very different ways.

Rafael Bernal, born 1915, was a seasoned writer of mid-brow local color and detective tales (and, like so many great Latin American writers, a diplomat) when he wrote The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1968. After the 1910 revolution, Mexico had never really settled into a functioning democracy, and with the Tlatelolco student massacre the country seemed to be headed in the wrong direction fast. Somehow knowing this would be his last novel, Bernal tore the roof off The Mongolian Conspiracy.

Filiberto García is Bernal’s antihero, a ready-to-retire police detective who’s never quite broken out of low-level cleanup (i.e. killing) assignments for one corrupt government department or another. The KGB, in Mongolia, has heard rumors of a Chinese conspiracy to assassinate the US president on his upcoming trip to Mexico City. The Americans and Russians both send agents to uncover the plot, and García is assigned to be their local guide. Or as he puts it, “Now I’ve been promoted to the Department of International Intrigue. Holy shit!” The world-weary government thug thus finds himself called out day and night to try to pick apart the threads of a delicate geopolitical clusterfuck. Meanwhile, he’s made his first emotional connection since forever with Marta, a girl from Chinatown who may herself be implicated in the plots and counterplots—but to sleep with her, he’ll first have to get a chance to sleep at all.

There are some fantastic set pieces, like the conversation where the Russian and the American compare memories of the coups and conspiracies they’ve staged around the world, while the Mexican listens on in envy—he’s only ever been involved in home-brewed trouble. The Russian asks, “An electrical cord is very effective. Don’t you think so, Filiberto?” and that sends García into a reverie worthy of Sam Peckinpah:

It was in Huasteca, and I was carrying out orders. Puny old devil who spent the whole day in his rocking chair on the porch of his house. The Boss gave the order. I came up behind him with the cord. . . . When he stopped moving, I put him in a coffin we had brought, and we took the main road out of town. The best way to carry a body discreetly is in a coffin. A laborer coming down the road with his oxen even doffed his hat when he saw it. Then, suddenly, as we turned a corner, the fucking old man started kicking. Like he wanted someone to notice. We had to lower the coffin, open it, and give him another squeeze with the same cord. Fucking rowdy old man!

Francisco Goldman, in his Introduction, says “the real action [of The Mongolian Conspiracy] springs from its language.” The narrative often slips directly inside García’s thoughts as he tries to piece together a moral stance from the shit surrounding him. Like the distinction between mere “stiffs” and a real “corpse” (the kind of body that might once have harbored a soul): “Fucking stiffs! You don’t only have to make them, you’ve also got to carry them as if they were children.” The old killer begins to suspect he has a heart after all. Or worry that he’s had one all along.

But Bernal’s García doesn’t quite hang together as a voice, for all his vigorous cursing. The language stumbles from the stiff and formal to tough-guy talk that would make Philip Marlowe blush, without (to my ear) settling into a vernacular consistent and believable for the time and setting. I don’t fault translator Katherine Silver—I’ve seen her skill at a remarkable range of registers in other works—so I wonder whether Bernal was just a little out of his depth. It must have been a tough assignment, an insider-turned-outsider inventing a language for someone who is just crossing that line himself. There’s no doubting why its plot and characters make it a “revered cult masterpiece,” but forty-five years later the lasting punch of The Mongolian Conspiracy may be not in its own language, but in the language it paved the way for, from Roberto Bolaño to Álvaro Enrigue and . . . “César Aira“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=9592.

18 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Emily Davis on César Aira’s The Hare, from New Directions.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and now lives in India, rubbing elbows with other awesome translators, and is also one of the contributing translators to Open Letter’s forthcoming Spanish fiction anthology. (She’s also the original East Coast version of me—or I’m the original Midwest version of her. For those of you who know either of us, you know both of us.)

Here’s a bit of Emily’s review:

It’s hard to boil down a wild, digressive, fantastical plot into a neat, compact, simple summary, but here’s an attempt: Clarke, a British naturalist, is traveling through Patagonia in, say, the 1830s, and as he meets more and more of the local Mapuche people, he gets more and more caught up in their mysterious politics as he’s asked to help find a chief who’s disappeared into thin air, all the while also searching for the so-called Legibrerian hare. And, for those of you following along at home, some parts of the story here are loosely (very loosely) based on actual events that took place in Argentina in, say, the 1830s. Juan Manuel de Rosas, “the Restorer of the Laws” himself, features in the opening of the book, and Calfucurá appears (and disappears) prominently as well.

The real star, though, is the pampas. This isn’t anything new—the Patagonian wilderness plays an important role in many of Aira’s books—but The Hare is all about the setting and its special, otherworldly properties. Clarke is obsessed with the pampas as heterotopia—a place where the otherwise impossible is possible, because the laws of physics that govern the rest of the world don’t seem to apply here. At least, the geometry’s wonky, and the way you can see (or can’t see) things on the pampas doesn’t always make sense.

For the entire review, go here

18 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I should say at the outset that there is a lot of absurdity in the whole thing.”

As the shaman Mallén prepares to explain to Clarke the legend of the Legibrerian hare, I can’t help but read “the whole thing” as not simply the legend, but indeed the entire novel. At nearly 300 pages, The Hare is a great deal longer than Aira’s usually much thinner volumes, and accordingly, there is a lot of Airian absurdity in it.

It’s hard to boil down a wild, digressive, fantastical plot into a neat, compact, simple summary, but here’s an attempt: Clarke, a British naturalist, is traveling through Patagonia in, say, the 1830s, and as he meets more and more of the local Mapuche people, he gets more and more caught up in their mysterious politics as he’s asked to help find a chief who’s disappeared into thin air, all the while also searching for the so-called Legibrerian hare. And, for those of you following along at home, some parts of the story here are loosely (very loosely) based on actual events that took place in Argentina in, say, the 1830s. Juan Manuel de Rosas, “the Restorer of the Laws” himself, features in the opening of the book, and Calfucurá appears (and disappears) prominently as well.

The real star, though, is the pampas. This isn’t anything new—the Patagonian wilderness plays an important role in many of Aira’s books—but The Hare is all about the setting and its special, otherworldly properties. Clarke is obsessed with the pampas as heterotopia—a place where the otherwise impossible is possible, because the laws of physics that govern the rest of the world don’t seem to apply here. At least, the geometry’s wonky, and the way you can see (or can’t see) things on the pampas doesn’t always make sense. Clarke is constantly thinking about this, as he compares the vast empty landscape to an urban labyrinth:

I’ve also lived in London, and what this desert we are going through reminded me of was in fact London, the greatest city in the world. Strange, isn’t it? They would seem to have nothing in common, and yet the effects are the same, even down to details. If you head in any direction, either along its streets or out into this endless wilderness, the sense of being in a labyrinth where there’s no labyrinth, of everything being on view, of homogeneity, is exactly the same . . .

and desperately tries to explain repeated sightings of a “wanderer” whose position and movement appear to be logically inexplicable:

Once, a lone rider who remained in their sight for hours caught their attention. He was travelling along what was for them the skyline, and his trajectory seemed to be moving from one side to the other, not in the manner of a normal zigzag (in which case they would have noticed him moving closer then drawing further away) but rather as if the whole space between observers and observed were tilting. . . . The alarming thing was that they saw him again two days later, but this time at a completely different point, separate from the horizon. . . . Clarke became worried. . . . drawing a diagram with a twig in the dust when they stopped to camp. He was trying to work out how the rider’s position had changed, but contradicted his own calculations when he tried to include the tilting in space he thought he had detected on both occasions.

And then there’s the story about the enormous ducks—ducks the size of humans—that could only be possible within this mysterious world, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Another element of The Hare that’s worth pointing out, especially to those of you who are interested in translation (and considering where you’re reading this, I’m assuming that’s, like, all of you), is the interplay of languages. Not only is Clarke an Englishman traveling in an officially Spanish-speaking country, but most of the people he converses with speak either Huilliche or Voroga. This means that when we read Nick Caistor’s English translation—depending on how willing we are to jump down the rabbit hole—much of what we’re reading is essentially a translation (from Spanish) of a translation (from Huilliche or Voroga). This is all well and good and not that unusual, but I imagine it must be satisfying, when translating, to end up writing a line like “The joke was different in Huilliche of course, which was the language they were speaking in. But it survives the translation.”

What’s more, there’s even special acknowledgment of the difficulties inherent in translation, especially where there are ambiguities of meaning:

In the Huilliche tongue, these last two nouns had several meanings. Clarke could not immediately decide how they were being used on this occasion, and asked for an explanation. He knew what he was letting himself in for, because the Indians could be especially labyrinthine in these delicate issues of semantics: their idea of the continuum prevented them from giving clear and precise definitions.

Of course here, as well as in the line “He [the Voroga chief, Coliqueo] created monstrous sentences, joining the subject of one with the predicate of another, in order to increase their vagueness,” I can’t help but wonder: are you describing your characters’ language, or your own narrative style? And, to be honest, this is precisely why I like it. I realize not everyone is as obsessed with self-referential style as I am, nor as prone to spot examples of it everywhere, almost compulsively, so I’ll stop myself there and skip right to this:

The Hare is disorienting from the start, and yet as the setting turns more disorienting (and the protagonists more disoriented, the plot more convoluted), things start to fall into place. The crazy tale culminates in a bizarre series of plot twists worthy of a daytime talk show, but the biggest surprise of all is that it actually comes off as kind of charming.

26 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by P.T. Smith on László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, from New Directions.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or didacticism. His novel is an insistence that the rapturous does exist, can be met, and that, although there are great risks in receiving or creating such an experience, it is something humans should not forget to strive for. For Krasznahorkai, that something is to help keep this focus on a single theme from drowning the reader; it is an endless theme, with infinite variations. This is seen even in the structure of the novel—a series of stories that are plot- and character-wise independent from each other—numbered by the Fibonacci sequence, suggesting that each builds off the one preceding it and that this building can continue endlessly, and is a naturally occurring beauty.

Reading a single chapter is a rewarding and complete experience in itself and tells the story of some encounter, or missed encounter in a few cases, with a work of art—whether it be a mask, dance, statue, painting, architecture—that surpasses the mundane and comprehensible experiences that make up the vast majority of our lives. None is dependent on the one before or the one after, but there is that sequence, and a pattern of reoccurrences—hand gestures, eyes opening and closing, mirrors helping someone try to comprehend a whole work—while each takes on an entirely different perspective from which to glimpse the spiritual. Time is no barrier: some encounters are set hundreds of years ago, some in an unnamed time, in the future; location is also not a barrier, as the encounters are set all over the world, with Kyoto as the beating heart that is returned to again and again. The fact that no place or time is less fully realized than another is a major accomplishment.

For the rest of the review, go “here:“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=8742.

26 November 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or didacticism. His novel is an insistence that the rapturous does exist, can be met, and that, although there are great risks in receiving or creating such an experience, it is something humans should not forget to strive for. For Krasznahorkai, that something is to help keep this focus on a single theme from drowning the reader; it is an endless theme, with infinite variations. This is seen even in the structure of the novel—a series of stories that are plot- and character-wise independent from each other—numbered by the Fibonacci sequence, suggesting that each builds off the one preceding it and that this building can continue endlessly, and is a naturally occurring beauty.

Reading a single chapter is a rewarding and complete experience in itself and tells the story of some encounter, or missed encounter in a few cases, with a work of art—whether it be a mask, dance, statue, painting, architecture—that surpasses the mundane and comprehensible experiences that make up the vast majority of our lives. None is dependent on the one before or the one after, but there is that sequence, and a pattern of reoccurrences—hand gestures, eyes opening and closing, mirrors helping someone try to comprehend a whole work—while each takes on an entirely different perspective from which to glimpse the spiritual. Time is no barrier: some encounters are set hundreds of years ago, some in an unnamed time, in the future; location is also not a barrier, as the encounters are set all over the world, with Kyoto as the beating heart that is returned to again and again. The fact that no place or time is less fully realized than another is a major accomplishment.

The characters that each chapter centers on also vary wildly. While some are calm, passive, many are barely able to contain themselves, though it isn’t always clear if their agitated, anxious states are natural to them or comes from their approach to the immanent; some are creators, others are seekers, and not always intentionally. The differences aren’t simply for variety, to keep a reader from drifting into boredom. It instead expresses that there is no essential nature that someone can lack that will prevent them from the rapturous encounter. We meet a man who “could not even pronounce the word miracle,” yet who experiences one nevertheless; we have a Bernhardian madman, giving a “lecture” that becomes a rant that exhausts his audience, raging against everything that is not or has damaged his sublime, the Baroque. That the sublime is open to all does not mean, however, that all approaches to art will be successful.

Seiobo There Below is full of contradictions and the necessity of opposing forces. As Krasznahorkai presents it, two key pairs to both the creation of art and the experience of it are effort and surrender, and knowing and not knowing. Both sides are necessary in the creation of the true work of art, but finding balance is a constant adjustment, not a straight line to walk, but rather like canoeing to an island across the currents of a great lake. Creating the works of art in each chapter takes great effort and care, but too much and the balance is lost. Mistakes are allowed, even necessary because then grace can take over. A Buddhist abbot worries and stresses and relentlessly practices with his monks to prepare for a ceremony to return a restored Amida Buddha statue to its place, but in the end, admits:

Exalted Buddha, how fallible they were, how unworthy, how many mistakes, how many errors, how many times they faltered in the texts, how often the great drum beat at the wrong time, and above all how many wrong steps before the alter, how much uncertainty and how many were perplexed, and they could not free themselves, and all the same, they did it, they were capable of that much, they had not fallen short of their abilities . . .

If human effort were enough, then the accomplishment, the experience, would never surpass the mundane. And it is not only in the art that surrender is necessary, that its value is seen in an experience. A isolated carver of Noh masks goes on a bike ride, straining up hills, sweaty and tired, “but then comes the downward run, and the wondrous, the inexpressible tranquility of the forest, its refreshing beauty, its inconceivable monumentality.” This effort cannot be desirous, however: “. . . his own experience taught him that if there is within him the desire to create an exquisite mask, then he will unavoidably and unconditionally create the ugliest mask possible.” The protagonist who has the greatest desire for his personal sublime misses it entirely, is blinded by it because he did not approach it without desire, and ultimately meets a tragic end.

Throughout each chapter, the approach that matters most is one of great concentration, to put all of one’s focus into looking at a painting, the detail in the surfaces of the walls of the Alhambra, or into carving a mask, mixing a paint. There are always the distractions of the world, currents against an individual, and Krasznahorkai compels us to find a way of escaping it, of being within a moment, across from an object of grace and beauty.

Getting to that moment means approaching understanding, but only approaching; this understanding is separate from gathering knowledge in the pursuit of certainty. Many of the works of art in Seiobo There Below are surrounded by uncertainty or dispute about their creators. Scholars argue over the true painter, and more than once, when fact and evidence provide an answer, their disappointment in being wrong, or in the painter being a “nobody” instead of a famous talent, leaves them never coming close to truly experiencing the painting. The one who does experience the height of the power of the artwork never seeks such certainty, only recognition of the work itself. We as readers, however, are privileged, and are told the stories behind some of the paintings; we are allowed to understand more, to know more, without risking beauty, because we are not desirous for each work in themselves, but instead meeting the whole spiritual plane they are each breaching.

One of the wonderful contradictions of the novel is that as he is warning us against having too much faith in knowledge, Lázló Krasznahorkai’s knowledge is terrifying. To truly experience an artwork, someone shouldn’t be bothered by having no knowledge of who created it. To accomplish this, Krasznahorkai writes from a nearly omniscient perspective: the narrator explains in detail, naming each tool used in the original language (the specific terms and titles seem endless), how to prepare a painting in 1500, both the science and ritual of how a statue is renovated in 2050, how to carve a Noh mask, and so on. It creates the sense that the narrator couldn’t possibly be an earthly man; not only could no one know so much, but it’s been made obvious that such clear and complete knowledge would cut off the rapturous instead of expanding and sharing it. Trickily, however, there are still unknowns, not pieces held back, but things even this narrator does not know, and those moments are filled with even greater awe, as when we explore the Alhambra together.

This companionship is another contradiction of Seiobo There Below. Like the chapters of the book themselves, humans throughout the book are isolated, self-contained, but at the same time, most of the works described arise when those discrete people work together. The story of disciples splitting the work with a master, or being involved in a key part of the process, is told again and again, even as the disciples are also a source of risk and agitation for the master. In “Il Ritorno in Preguia,” a master who has lost commitment to his work only regains it after his “most faithful disciple” spends his nights thinking and dreaming of the secrets of the colors of his master’s paints, and later goes on to mix those paints, which contain a uniqueness that gives the master’s art its essence.

All of these ideas, convictions, and contradictions are expressed in Krasznahorkai’s famously long, comma- and semicolon-filled sentences. It is not style for the sake of style or distinctiveness, however. The breathlessness, the repetitions, the changes of tone, the move from clarity to confusion, all in the space of paragraph-long sentences, bring to life the very experiences described. Agitation and wonder in a character’s being is not something we are just told, but we something we are brought within. Translator Ottilie Mulzet does a remarkable job of abandoning the English sentence structure, but not its sense or beauty to render this book into English. She finds Krasznahorkai’s personal grammar and brings it into English.

Seiobo There Below, both beautiful and intensely focused on the experience of the beautiful, seeks a connection with a spiritual plane neither centered on religious disctinctions, nor disparaging of them. The chapter on a Buddhist statue begins with an epitaph praising Christ. Portrayals of Christ and Buddha are both brought to life with eyes that move, that are somewhere between the endless cycle of opening and closing. That back and forth movenment between the opposites of opened and closed, with a middle ground where, when frozen in a painting or statute, the direction is impossible to discern, again reminds us of contradictions forming a whole. Christ and Buddha may be brought to life, but so may a demon who will “do harm”; in another chapter, a man barely grasping his sanity buys a knife. So Seiobo There Below is not only in praise of the beautiful, but insists on the existence of the terrifying paired with it. Fulfillment and emptiness are both present in the experience of rapture and the return to the mundane, and this is both a warning and a calling. Even if we do not create a demon, we, like a man before a painting of Christ, are left trying to understand a beauty and a sorrow “for creating, for existence, for being, for time, for suffering and for passion, for birth and destruction.”

3 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Not long ago, Nick Laird wrote an interesting article for The Guardian on the Slow Food Movement, an idea sprung from modern dissatisfaction with fast food. Participants gather to enjoy homemade meals cooked for as long as necessary. The emphasis is on the experience, not merely the consumption, of food. From this, Laird argues that poetry may be the antidote to Twitter and Facebook, both preaching the value of immediacy while encouraging reaction over contemplation. Whereas a Tweet is limited to a small amount of characters and is meant to be read quickly, a good poem is as long as it needs to be and asks to be digested slowly. Laird calls this the Slow Language Movement.

Leonid Tsypkin may not have written poetry, but his collection The Bride Over Neroch would certainly fit in with Laird’s idea. The prose is dense, detailed, and impossible to skim. It requires patience and tries its best to fuse many details into one enormous paragraph (and sometimes into one sentence). The book ought to be the perfect response to a world consumed with social media and instant connection. But this is part of the problem. The writing, while precise and complex, doesn’t always challenge one the way in which poetry, or rich prose, does. This may be a fault of the translation, but midway through the title piece I was wondering if the disconnect I felt was due to Tsypkin’s writing or due to my dwindling attention span. Both, maybe? I have no problem with a dense book, but I do ask that the author give me something to hang my hat on other than seemingly arbitrary observations of mountains. Though it is unfair to compare Tyspkin to other writers, while reading Tsypkin I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle books are not short of mundane detail yet manage to be thoroughly engrossing, and László Krasznahorkai, who spins unwieldy sentences that demand close reading and grant significant rewards. Conversely, Tyspkin’s titular novella, a meticulous story of many generations of a Russian-Jewish family, sweeping though it may be, feels overstuffed and wearying.

Things improve, though. The second novella in the collection, “Norartakir,” employs a similar style with more satisfying results. The plot of the novella is simple (the description on the back cover is somewhat misleading), but, in this instance, the story takes a backseat. Travel log, revenge tale, and exploration of social/cultural differences, “Norartakir” offers more to chew on than the other long piece in the collection, though it too suffers from meandering prose that doesn’t always hit the mark.

Shorter tales follow, most of them achieving good results that do much to redeem the otherwise cumbersome spots in The Bride Over Neroch. “Fellow Traveler” and “Ten Minutes of Waiting” nicely document the absurd realities of systematic Soviet life. “Ave Maria,” compact in comparison to the longer pieces yet given enough room to unfold, is perhaps the best balance of Tsypkin’s digressive tendencies and his ability to relay a compelling tale.

As with many collections, the sum is not as good as its finest parts, though the stories offer enough worth recommending. Perhaps this is a book aimed at specific readers: those enamored with Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden will cherish this publication of the neglected writer’s remaining work; scholars of Soviet-era literature will likely find some of these stories enjoyable. And the before-mentioned Slow Language Movement can add Tsypkin to its list of important writers. Otherwise, let the casual reader beware: here there be both glories and duds.

3 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Vincent Francone on Leonid Tsypkin’s The Bridge Over the Neroch & Other Works, from New Directions.

My apologies to Vincent for posting this so late—he had it ready for us almost a month ago—but it’s never too late for a Russian classic. Great Russian works can sometimes be hard to get in to, but even the heavier Russian works have their merits, and their beauty, as Vincent points out in his review. Here’s the beginning of his piece:

Not long ago, Nick Laird wrote an interesting article for The Guardian on the Slow Food Movement, an idea sprung from modern dissatisfaction with fast food. Participants gather to enjoy homemade meals cooked for as long as necessary. The emphasis is on the experience, not merely the consumption, of food. From this, Laird argues that poetry may be the antidote to Twitter and Facebook, both preaching the value of immediacy while encouraging reaction over contemplation. Whereas a Tweet is limited to a small amount of characters and is meant to be read quickly, a good poem is as long as it needs to be and asks to be digested slowly. Laird calls this the Slow Language Movement.

Leonid Tsypkin may not have written poetry, but his collection The Bride Over Neroch would certainly fit in with Laird’s idea. The prose is dense, detailed, and impossible to skim. It requires patience and tries its best to fuse many details into one enormous paragraph (and sometimes into one sentence). The book ought to be the perfect response to a world consumed with social media and instant connection. But this is part of the problem. The writing, while precise and complex, doesn’t always challenge one the way in which poetry, or rich prose, does. This may be a fault of the translation, but midway through the title piece I was wondering if the disconnect I felt was due to Tsypkin’s writing or due to my dwindling attention span. Both, maybe? I have no problem with a dense book, but I do ask that the author give me something to hang my hat on other than seemingly arbitrary observations of mountains. Though it is unfair to compare Tyspkin to other writers, while reading Tsypkin I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle books are not short of mundane detail yet manage to be thoroughly engrossing, and László Krasznahorkai, who spins unwieldy sentences that demand close reading and grant significant rewards. Conversely, Tyspkin’s titular novella, a meticulous story of many generations of a Russian-Jewish family, sweeping though it may be, feels overstuffed and wearying.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you use the Facebook or the Twitter, you probably already know this, but the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards were handed out on Friday as part of the PEN World Voices/CLMP “Literary Mews” series of events.1 And you probably know that Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago Books and Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions were the two winners for poetry and fiction, respectively.

Thanks to underwriting from Amazon.com, George Szirtes, Sean Cotter, László Krasznahorkai, and Nichita Stanescu will each receive a $5,000 cash prize.

I want to personally thank Jill McCoy of the European Society of Authors for kicking off the event by talking about Finnegan’s List and to Esther Allen for adding some thoughtful and interesting comments (as is to be expected, I mean, duh, it’s Esther Allen). Also, a large Internet round of applause should go out to Bill Martin and Michael Orthofer for making the actual announcements—thanks guys!

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the two titles, here’s a bit more info:

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

And from Bromance Will’s2 write-up of why this book should win:

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA. [. . .]

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom.

If you haven’t read this, buy it NOW. There is a paperback version coming out soon, but god damn is the hardback gorgeous. Buy it because quality printed books are somewhat of a rarity and should be preserved and glorified.

*

Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.

And from judge Russell Valentino’s write-up:

A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!

This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”

It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.

Speaking of things that are beautiful, this is the third Archipelago title to win. Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston won in 2012, and Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein won in 2009. Seeing that only 11 titles have received this honor, that’s incredibly impressive. Congrats to Jill Schoolman—the publisher of one of the greatest publishers of international literature there is!

And stay tuned. We’ll be announcing info about the 2014 BTBAs in approximately one month.

1 Which, especially for a test-run, was remarkably successful. I sold more than 15 books in the first hour and a half, and only brought back a handful of units.

2 Will Evans was an apprentice here last year, and as a result is launching Deep Vellum, an indie press based in Dallas dedicated to doing awesome literature from around the world. He has a few titles in the works that I know about, but the only think I should really mention here is that he’ll be publishing Sergio Pitol as one of his first authors. For more information, you should follow his Twitter account: @DeepVellum. And if you’re at BEA this year, you should meet with him. Will has the rare ability to make the most jaded professional excited about books and publishing once again. We need people like him in this field.

24 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein, and published by New Directions.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:

In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.

As much as Xi Chuan’s prose poems step outside of classical poetry to look back in, his lineated verse voraciously considers beyond the borders of China to expand a framework tied to the history of Chinese poetry, reframing the frame and what is beyond it. In a poem that reflects on turning thirty, Xi Chuan writes:

in my first decade
the moon revealed its silent craters
while under the moon, in the town I lived in
a clatter of exorcismal gongs and shouts in the street
     my limping uncle swore in the courtyard
     careless I met with a white rooster’s kiss
     and a girl pulled down her pants in front of me…
hail bounced in exhaustion on the road to the commune
     I entered an immaculate school and studied revolution

Here, lyrical observations on symbols of the natural world intermix with the surreal, the political, and the daily. In another poem, Xi Chuan writes:

even the moonlight is polluted blurring our shadows
even the mountaintops grow like fissures brewing

even the Tang Dynasty fell in the end
even the dumpsters have people living in them . . .

This is a poem of nihilistic momentum. Past dynasties can illustrate a mindset and so can polluted skies and ancient mountains—all re-envisioned in Xi Chuan’s verse.

So many of us are curious about how China sees itself, and so is Xi Chuan. Throughout the book, he reflects on, interrogates, builds up, tears apart, repaints and enacts what modern China means. This is, of course, a huge topic, and one feels the kinetic struggle in language to figure China’s dichotomies; the reader participates in the erratic dance between country and self, between an interior dialogue and a public setting forth. The poems are neither distanced considerations nor fleeting impressions. Rather, we see a mind using everything at hand—from ancient history to the senses, from the philosophers to the annoyance of neighbors, and sometimes what comes through most is this sense of urgency. Here, urgency feels like action against a fixed and false sense of the present. Thinking is political and personal, predetermined and endlessly open. Xi Chuan writes:

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human . . . The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

This is not nature poetry and yet it is. It is not political and is. It is impersonal and personal and cold and emotional. It is foreign and very near.

Lucas Klein, brings the poems into an English that feels lively and forceful, apparent in both the lineated and the prose poems, all of which sound intriguingly new and yet spoken by a familiar friend. He has not made these poems American, but rather allowed us to hear Xi Chuan’s poetics and ideas in an American idiom, in an English that is alive with personality. Klein’s knowledge of Chinese culture and history allows references to appear without explanation or odd framing. Rather, he translates the impulse of the poems so that we might eavesdrop on one of the more important conversations about national identity happening in poetry.

9 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by New Directions.

This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.

Few contemporary writers are as conceptually imaginative or as willing to acknowledge their debts as Enrique Vila-Matas, which comes as a breath of fresh air, especially to those of us reading in the United States, where literary insularity is the norm. Each of his books to be translated thus far—Montano’s Malady, Bartleby & Co., Never Any End to Paris, and our subject here, Dublinesque—takes as its starting point a book or writer and from that point delves into clever, incisive examinations of what it means to be a modern reader.

Dublinesque (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean) is concerned with a pivotal moment in the history of literature: what Vila-Matas refers to as the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. It is, as one might expect, an elegy. The plot follows the downward trajectory of an exemplar of that unfortunate species, the literary publisher, whose battles with alcohol and entropy (personal and professional) constitute the lament at the heart of the book. Riba, whose career has long since dried up and whose days are spent in front of a computer, grows convinced that in order to exorcize his demons, he needs to hold a funeral for the age of the printed book. There is no better place for this than Dublin, he reasons, because Joyce’s masterpiece was the culmination of the printed book. And so he begins to plan this funeral, all while battling his own personal demons and obsolescence.

Like Vila-Matas’ other books, this is one is melancholy, focused like the others on exhaustion—it’s also a rain-soaked and haunted novel. Dublinesque nevertheless manages to maintain a degree of levity. This is due to Vila-Matas’ wistful humor and his vast knowledge of literature: the book is full of allusions, references, cameos, and digressions on such figures as Robert Walser, Juan Carlos Onetti, Emily Dickinson, Julien Gracq (!), and, more centrally, Joyce and Beckett. In typical fashion for Vila-Matas, there are also references to fictitious writers who leave the reader pining for more. Nothing impresses so much as the range of Vila-Matas’ reading and his ability to weave into his narrative strands from other works, a technique that helps to bolster his occasionally patchy plots.

To be honest, I found the thin spots in the book endearing in a way, as if Vila-Matas littered his book with trapdoors into which a reader might fall. Of all the books on the longlist, Dublinesque is the most reflexive and its concern with the state of serious literature, where it’s heading and how it got here, makes it worthy of winning this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

2 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and published by New Directions

Bromance Will—who is probably still smarting from Duke’s AWFUL performance on Sunday—is back. Will Evans is in process of setting up Deep Vellum, a publishing house based in Dallas dedicated to international literature. More info on that in the near future.

What if you did dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? What if you did meet the devil at a crossroads and sold your soul for a special talent? What if your own Faustian bargain brought about the end of everything? What if you were at your wits end, and devoid of even the faintest glimmer of hope, but a mysterious stranger in any form could offer you some sort of reprieve, some sort of change? Would you take it? Of course you would. And you would become another loser in the history of the world, another sad character in a Krasznahorkai novel. But make no mistake, you are already that loser, history has already forgotten you, you are helpless, you are weak, you are inconsequential. This is what Satantango should make you feel. And it is why it should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango takes a look at evil in its everyday forms. Satantango is a diabolical novel, a bleak, haunting, hypnotic, philosophical, black comedic deconstruction of apocalyptic messianism. Translated flawlessly by George Szirtes, Hungarian poet and translator of renown, the story of Satantango‘s appearance in English is so miraculous, and the end result so perfect, from the gorgeous first edition hardcover that New Directions released, to the quality of the translation inside, that it is clear: Satantango deserves to win the BTBA.

Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s first novel to be published way back in 1985, and was turned into a legendary seven-hour film by the author’s friend and frequent working partner, the director Béla Tarr, in 1994. Despite the film’s renown, or perhaps because of it, the legend holds that the translation of Satantango took nearly 20 years to complete. And it’s not just that we had to wait 27 years for this masterpiece, Satantango could and should win the BTBA in and of itself because it is a harrowing and bleakly funny look at the frailty of the human condition and our divine aspirations.

Though the film version is nearly seven hours long, Satantango is by far the shortest and easiest Krasznahorkai novel to digest of the three published in English by New Directions thus far. Though the sentences are long and there are no paragraph breaks in each chapter, as per Krasznahorkai’s unique style, the narrative pace is brisk, with a black comedy underlying the character’s thoughts and actions, or rather, lack of actions. Set up in a cycle of twelve chapters that progress from I-VI, then backwards from VI-I, with the eponymous Satan’s tango in the middle, the story tells of a wretched collective farm fallen into a hapless state of disrepair that suddenly perks up with life when word gets to the inhabitants that the mysterious and enigmatic Irimiás was coming back.

Irimiás had left the collective farm some years before, promising great change upon his return, but when we meet him and his sidekick, Petrina, the pair are plotting to return to the farm to wreak havoc under the direction of an unnamed, evil government bureaucracy. The inhabitants had been waiting for the day when their messiah, Irimiás, would return to deliver them from their squalor to a brighter future, unaware that Irimiás is a false prophet, who despises them and will bring them only to their doom. Take this conversation between Irimiás and Petrina on the road back to the village, one of my favorite passages in the whole novel (all bolding mine):

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The moral of Satantango is unclear, if there is one at all. You can draw your own conclusions, you can read into anything and everything, the questions that arise from the text are not immediately answerable. Is Irimiás himself the Devil? Or just another false prophet, like so many who came before him? Like the Communist leaders who promised utopia on Earth, and who were still firmly in charge of Hungary, though a barely-breathing corpse, when Krasznahorkai wrote the novel in ’85? Irimiás seems to take his instruction from the nameless and faceless bureaucrats in the capital who send him on the ill-fated mission that comprises the novel’s downfall (with the chapters numbered in ascending, then descending order). And what about the doctor, the unconscious narrator of the novel, daydreaming of ahistorical time in his chair while the world around him spins downward to ultimate ruin? What of the pitiful women in the story, the little girl/cat-killer, or the prostitutes hanging about in the ruins? Should we be depressed when the novel ends, realizing that we live in a different kind of shit (“Same shit, different toilet”, not a Krasznahorkai quote, but which applies here), or impressed with an author who is willing to confront the hopeless idiocy of humanity’s basest instinctual elements?

The vagueness and banality of evil is at the core of Satantango; reading Satantango is a much-needed antidote to the garbage you read in the techno-centric positivism online about everything these days. Though it seems like lot of time has passed since 1985, make no mistake, no time has passed at all in the primordial sense of time, you are still inconsequential; and vast droves of people seem to think that the leaps forward in technological advancement has meant grand changes to humanity, but they’re wrong: in the grand scheme of things we’re still the same awful, evil creatures we were 27 years ago, a thousand years ago, a million years ago, and the cult of the digital revolution or whatever the latest fad or technological advancement may be, none of them are any different than the false prophet of Irimiás’s empty promises to lead us all to some nonexistent exalted future.

Satantango should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because as a people, humanity needs to gain some awareness of our own rotten core, and if Satantango goes unrecognized as a work of the purest genius it is because we as a people are too afraid to look deep within ourselves, too scared of what we might find, or too scared to realize what was never there in the first place.

29 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions

This piece is by Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), student in the University of Rochester’s Translation Program and translator of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which will be released in 2014.

Before I talk directly about why I think Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, I want to offer a little background about how this novel’s English publication came about, mostly because it strengthens my overall argument, but also because it deals with issues relevant to literature in translation more broadly. (I realize that readers of Three Percent might already be familiar with much of the following information regarding Lispector and her English translations, so if you are one of those readers, please forgive the lengthy digression).

Although she is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century, Clarice Lispector has never enjoyed a large English language readership. She is wildly popular in Brazil, revered and adored to the point of idolatry. Her strange, captivating prose, epic life story, and striking beauty have made her a legendary national icon. Her books are sold in vending machines, her face adorns postage stamps, and her name appears regularly in all sorts of literary and popular media. But for whatever reason—be it the challenging nature of her work, the fact that she’s a woman, flat English translations, or a general lack of interest in Brazilian literature—she has never enjoyed the popularity among English readers of other Latin American Boom writers like Jorge Amado, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Over the last several years, New Directions and Benjamin Moser—author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in 2009—have been working to change that. In 2011, New Directions published Moser’s retranslation of The Hour of the Star (the last novel Lispector published during her lifetime), and in June of 2012 they published a series of four new translations of Lispector novels, all edited by Moser. This series includes retranslations of three of her most well known books—Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrkin), Aqua Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler), and The Passion According to G. H. (translated by Idra Novey)—as well as the first English edition of A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz), a novel which was published after Lispector’s death, and assembled, organized and edited by her close friend Olga Borelli.

In the introduction to A Breath of Life, Moser refers to New Directions series of Lispector translations as “the most important project of translation into English of a Latin American author since the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges were published a decade ago.” According to Moser, the original English translations of Lispector’s work were woefully inadequate, flattening out, “correcting,” and explaining the strange grammar, idiosyncratic syntax, and surprising word choices that define Lispector’s style. Lispector’s own response to an early French translation of Near to the Wild Heart, which upset her because of the liberties it took in translating her style, provides definitive support for Moser’s sentiment, in a letter to her editor at the time she wrote:

I admit, if you like, the sentences do not reflect the usual manner of speaking, but I assure you that it is the same in Portuguese. The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not result from ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that elementary principals of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it be respected.

Though he acknowledges that, to some extent, translators invariably tend to smooth out oddities and correct “errors” present in original works, for his own translation of The Hour of the Star and for the other Lispector translations he edited for New Directions, Moser aimed for the greatest fidelity possible to the syntax and grammar of her Portuguese originals. In the afterword to The Hour of the Star, he writes: “The translator must therefore resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it the ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.”

Lispector has clearly carved out her place in the canon of world literature. Her unique artistic vision, innovative narrative style, and philosophical insight situate her comfortably among the best writers of the twentieth century. And in light of the aim—and what I believe to be the success—of the Moser/New Directions project, the comparison to the translation of Borges’ complete works, which might come off as overblown at first glance, seems to me entirely appropriate. Because A Breath of Life is the only title in the New Directions series that is not a retranslation, it is the only one eligible for the BTBA. Which is not to say that it necessarily represents the significance of the entire project, but at the same time, its importance as a translated book cannot be fully appreciated outside that context.

So, finally, A Breath of Life. This novel, like much of Lispector’s work, delves into the relationships between thoughts, sensations, words, facts, and objects; into the ways language constructs and mediates what we call reality. It is structured as a sort of dialogue between a male “Author” and Angela, a character he creates. In short, alternating passages, the two voices reflect on the nature of time, meaning, death, and on the relationship between author and character, between creator and creation. As the “Author” states:

Angela and I are my interior dialogue: I talk to myself. Angela is from my dark interior: she however comes to light. The tenebrous darkness from which I emerge. Pullulating darkness, lava of a humid volcano burning intensely. Darkness full of worms and butterflies, rats and stars.

If the novel had a plot, it might be described as the “Author’s” struggle to understand Angela and his relationship to her, and Angela’s struggle to understand herself and her relationship to the “things” of the world. But it all takes place inside; there is no action, no grounding in the world, no “real” handhold.

The structure of an interior dialogue between author and character—which might be thought of as defining a split in Lispector’s mind, a divided self—undermines the distinction between form and content, laying bare the ways in which not only fiction and fictitious characters, but the “facts” of the world in which we live, and our identities, what we call “selves,” are fabrications of language. As the “Author” writes: “Reality does not exist in itself. What there is is seeing the truth through dream. Real life is merely symbolic: it refers to something else.” And: “I wouldn’t exist if there were no words.” And: “Angela goes from language to existence. She wouldn’t exist if there were no words.”

If all this sounds really abstract, well, it is. Many questions are raised and very few unambiguous answers are given. Angela tells us:

I know the secret of the sphinx. She did not devour me because I gave the right answer to her question. But I am an enigma for the sphinx and nevertheless I did not devour her. Decipher me, I said to the sphinx. And she fell mute. The pyramids are eternal. They will always be restored. Is the human soul a thing? Is it eternal? Between the hammer and the blows I hear silence.

There are many such quotable lines and Nietzsche-esque aphorisms, but in itself this probing into the nature of reality, identity, and meaning is not really what gives this book its power. It is the way Lispector’s style is able to render these ideas not only thought but also felt. The structure and rhythm of her sentences, the surprising juxtapositions, and subtle, provocative rearrangements of ordinary language are able to tap into something primordial that transcends the limits of ordinary expression. And here we readers of Lispector in English are indebted to the extraordinary work of translator Johnny Lorenz and the vision of Benjamin Moser, who, by holding true to Lispector’s unconventional grammar and syntax, sustain the jagged, hypnotic musicality that makes her prose so intellectually rewarding and so viscerally resonant.

A Breath of Life deserves to win the BTBA because it is the only entirely new part of a translation series that reintroduces a canonical writer to English readers; but also because it is a beautiful, original, and deeply intelligent book by a writer who leaves us, like the sphinx, mute and wondering at her genius and her mystery.

(As far as wrestling goes, no contest: Lispector will seduce all comers with her feline eyes then crush them with the weight of her brain).

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Emily Davis on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the most recent Aira book to come out from New Directions, and which is translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

Emily is a graduate of the University of Rochester’s Master of Arts in Literary Translation, and for her thesis she translated Damián Tabarovsky’s Medical Autobiography, which we hopefully will be publishing in the not-too-distant future.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog isn’t already familiar with César Aira. New Directions has published seven of his books, including Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Literary Conference, and How I Became a Nun. And this is just a fraction of Aira’s incredible output—he’s published more than 50 works, including 2-4 every year since 1993. (According to Wikipedia, the World’s Finest Information Source.)

Here’s the opening of Emily’s review:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

Click here to read the review in its entirety.

15 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately, and I’m therefore liable to see everything through science-fiction-colored glasses. But when the pages of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira refer to “the totality of the present and of eternity” and the narrator drops phrases like “all possible worlds,” can you blame me for reading this book as a sort of exercise in shaping a reality that’s beyond what we would normally consider reality?

Let me back up, and let me be fair. A book that claims to be about miracles is not going to be fully grounded in reality. Or rather, it might be grounded in reality, but sooner or later it’s going to move beyond, above, outside of, maybe even to someplace that’s simply adjacent to reality. At the same time, those who are already familiar with César Aira’s books know that even the most normal, most mundane circumstances are likely to be interrupted by fantastical creatures or seemingly impossible events.

The Miracle Cures is a bit different, though. It’s subtler than the blue worms of The Literary Conference, or the armadillo-car of The Seamstress and the Wind. It’s more a meditation on what’s possible and, perhaps more importantly, what makes certain things possible. The Miracle Cures focuses more on the abstract.

Aira is no stranger to abstraction in his writing: his narratives often wander into abstract musings that can be frustrating or enlightening (or both), depending on how much mental energy you’re willing to devote to them (or how coherent he’s made them in the first place). Here, however, far more than I’ve seen before, Aira calls himself out on it. Dr. Aira, the protagonist of The Miracle Cures, is, as it turns out, an aspiring author. He plans to write and publish a series of books about the Miracle Cures. In writing these books, the narrator tells us Dr. Aira refuses to write in the standard, expected way: that is, using specific examples to illustrate his points. He prefers to remain in the abstract realm. Not only that, but even Dr. Aira’s drawings, which can be found in his many notebooks alongside his written notes about the Cures, always turn out abstract. Very rarely and only by accident do they ever represent something recognizable.

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is hard to summarize. The most I can do is set it up: Dr. Aira has the power to perform miracle cures, and everyone knows it. His power is legendary. The hospital chief is constantly developing elaborate traps designed to trick Dr. Aira into performing a miracle cure on command, and Dr. Aira tries his best to avoid these tricks. Dr. Aira is also a sleepwalker, or rather, to use the words of the novel itself:

He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same.

On one such morning, Dr. Aira finds himself talking to a Lebanon cedar, delivering a rather deep philosophical monologue about humanity and its position on the planet and its relationship to Nature, when suddenly he pauses and adds:

Of course I am personalizing this quite perversely, reifying and externalizing forces that exist within us, but it doesn’t matter because I understand myself.

This is not only a comment that might make a frequent Aira reader laugh (“you might not have a clue what I’m trying to say here, but rest assured that at least I get it”), it’s also an indicator of one aspect of Aira’s writing style. Here, and in his books in general, Aira is a master of using high-register vocabulary in a matter-of-fact way. Why mention sleepwalking when he can easily fold in somnambulism instead? That his character is talking to a tree, like a madman? Why not seamlessly incorporate a word like reifying?

Of course, we ought to remember that Aira writes in Spanish, and this sort of styling—in particular, a stylistic trait that depends on certain vocabularies—does not simply transfer from one language to another on its own. That’s the work of a skilled translator, and here as ever, Katherine Silver does not disappoint. I can only imagine the feat it must be to translate Aira; nonetheless, The Miracle Cures is remarkably smooth while remaining anything but flat.

The final scene of The Miracle Cures is the most lively, most visually interesting, most mentally engaging of the entire book. Unfortunately, the ending itself is disappointing. Without giving it away—here I am going into abstractions myself—the ending does make the opening scene make a little more sense, but it doesn’t quite connect enough of the dots. I don’t expect all the dots to be connected—Aira usually leaves a few disconnects—but I just get the feeling he could have done more with this one. It just falls, and not enough in the “oh, this makes a lot of Aira-sense” direction. There seems to be a little too much truth to the narrator’s comment as Dr. Aira is wrapping up his actions in the final scene:

As often happens with difficult jobs, a point came when the only thing that mattered was to finish. He almost lost interest in the results, because the result that included all the others was to finish what he had started.

23 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the coolest releases of the winter has to be the new version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style—the classic Oulipian text in which Queneau tells and retells the same story of two men who get on a bus and have a minor row, ending with one telling the other to replace a button on his overcoat. The original version had 99 of these variations told in styles ranging from “Notation” to “Word game” to “Cockney” to “Awkward.” It’s a testament to Queneau’s ability as a writer, and just as interestingly, it sort of blows apart the idea of how many ways a story can be told—and how style can be more important than content.

Anyway, this new version, which celebrates the book’s 65th Anniversary, New Directions added in twenty-five exercises left out of the original, AND included new exercises written by Jesse Ball, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten, and Enrique Vila-Matas.

Anyway, anyway, to mark the release of this, ND posted a two-part conversation between Daniel Levin Becker and Chris Clarke about Queneau, Exercises in Style, and the Oulipo in general. You can read part one here, and click here for part two. And below are a few interesting bits:

Daniel Levin Becker: Maybe we should start with the book a little bit, if only to make it topical, and then go more general from there? For the sake of doing what I just suggested, here’s a question: what do you think is the particular relevance of Exercises in Style today?

Chris Clarke: I don’t know if I can speak so much to a “particular” relevance, it might be more appropriate in my mind to speak of a “continued” relevance. For me, Exercises in Style is the great reminder that there is no such thing as ideology-free writing. Even the simplest text, the most banal or inconsequential piece of writing, carries marks of style that affect the reader in one way or another. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that this is more important to understand now than it was in 1947, but it seems that way sometimes. Could just be a bias of time and place. But that was always the way Exercises affected me, by making me conscious of all the different ways it could affect me, and by reminding me that in its case, like in most, the whole process is intentional. Beyond that, well, I can’t not mention it, the other continued relevance of Exercises to me is simply that it’s a window into how much fun language can be, even when used to describe something as banal as a story of bus rides and button-shifting. Even the dullest crosstown trip on the S-bus can be utterly and infinitely fascinating.

DLB: I like your point about ideology. I guess what I had in the back of my mind when I asked that was something about the fragmentation of writing these days, literary or otherwise, such that fluency (so to speak) in a number of registers maybe counts a little more than it used to, because you don’t want to tweet in the same voice as you write an essay, a blog post, an email, etc. In any case, I don’t (maybe Tao Lin does). It feels a little overserious to claim that there’s all that much of a difference between an email and a blog post, but then maybe that’s where the ideology part of it comes in. [. . .]

Michael Barron: Chris, you say that there is no such thing as ideology-free writing, that everything has a semblance of style. I am curious to know how a style in the French, say “Promotional,” actually changes when rendered in English. I am also curious to know from both of you which exercises from the contributions by contemporary writers struck you as the most true to Queneau’s vision? And from there, I am wondering if you think that Queneau had a certain umbrella style that pervades all of his exercises?

CC: I thought the new contributions were a lot of fun. To me, closest to Queneau’s method might be Frederic Tuten’s “Beat.” I thought Shane Jones’ “Assistance” added a neat bit of insight into the narrator, in the same way that Queneau’s “There were oodles . . .” does. As far as style crossing over from language to language . . . well, it’s one of the goals of the translator to find the closest equivalent (s)he can. Of course, no two languages operate the same way, so it’s perhaps never a perfect transaction, but it’s something translators are very conscious of. Something like “Promotional” and its French counterpart “Publicitaire” are always going to have some little differences to them, some of them because of differences in the language and the way style works in those given languages, some because of cultural differences. In this case, a radio ad is going to have a different ring to it in a North American (or British) context than it would in a French context, just as much as it will be read differently now compared to how it would have come across 65 years ago. Also, in this case, the very last line in the French text is a riff on the slogan of a French battery called Wonder, which was so popular that it spawned a variety of parodies, including the slogan of a newspaper. The English reader isn’t going to see that in the English text, as the reference is no longer physically there, and even if it were, he likely wouldn’t react the same way because he doesn’t necessarily have the same cultural references at his disposal. In cases like this, the intertextuality can’t quite be the same. [. . .]

CC: Okay, here’s something I’ve always wanted to ask an Oulipian. If I were to tell you I was translating a piece of your writing that involved a particular constraint, my question (depending of course on the particular piece) would be, would you tell me that I should be more concerned about translating the finished piece of writing, or about reproducing the constraint used in creating the piece? For an easy example, a “faithful” literary translation of a lipogram with no “e” that attempted to stay close to the text would almost certainly contain “e”‘s.

DLB: [Trying to ignore the well-of-course-this-changes-everything implications of it being my writing,] I’d say it’s absolutely more important to reproduce the constraint or procedure than to reproduce the meaning. That is assuming, of course, that the constraint was instrumental in engendering the text, which almost has to be the case for the text to be like, good (in this admittedly peculiar entre-nous kind of way). If you were to translate La disparition for the story alone, you’d have a novel that’s not ultimately all that good; if you were to translate it without using the most common letter in the target language, you might not succeed in making the narrative/details “faithful” enough for it to be considered the same work, but I’d argue you’d have come much closer to preserving what’s essential about the book. (Fun aside: I recently translated Perec’s dream journal, which contains a few references to La disparition, and had an almost visceral aversion to the idea of rendering it in English as A Void, just because to me those are such manifestly different books. (The publisher has probably overridden my call on that; only time will tell.)) Anyway, an unofficial thought-test tells me this holds true for most constraint-based (or shall we say structure-forward) works that come to mind—imagine translating Abish’s Alphabetical Africa for content alone. Pointless! The pointlessness of the exercise would be rivaled only by the creepy colonialist overtones that rose to the surface.

MB: Hey now, we publish Alphabetical Africa . . .

So fun. And all this Oulipo talk makes me more excited to get to Scott and Lauren’s The End of Oulipo? (which I didn’t get to last weekend, since I had to read Merchants of Culture for class and am finishing up Böll’s The Safety Net. Oh, and I read Hilda Hilst’s fascinating The Obscene Madame D, but I’ll talk about that more in a Friday post . . .)

6 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Reviews Section”: is a piece by Grant Barber on The Poems of Octavio Paz, edited and mostly translated by Eliot Weinberger, and available from New Directions.

Grant’s review is really solid, so I’m just going to jump right to it and give you a sample:

One critical “orthodoxy” insists that the works solely themselves should be considered in critical reflection; this approach can provide some real satisfactions in reading Paz’s poetry. The reader’s knowledge about the artist’s public life deepens the engagement, especially given the scope of this volume’s collection.

Paz was born in Mexico City at the start of WWI to a Spanish mother and Mexican father. His very heritage, of new and old worlds, seems to set the pattern for his life, of bridging, incorporating. He embraced emergent communism while not officially signing on. He was in Spain for the Civil War on behalf of the resistance to Franco. Later he travelled to the US, where he also taught at Harvard, and in England, teaching at Cambridge. A diplomat for Mexico in Japan first, Paz later was Mexico’s ambassador to India. In 1968 he resigned that position in protest after a brutal police response to protests in Mexico, part of the larger cultural shifts of that era. Yet he sided with government later, on the other side of the divide from Carlos Fuentes over the Sandanista movement. Similarly he had earlier alienated other intellectual writers in his rejection of Castro, and then the later Zapatista movement in Chiapas.

In literary matters, he was warmly embraced by Neruda; had a falling out over Stalinism (Paz by then had rejected the communist realities), with reconciliation near the end of Neruda’s life. He was intrigued by the Surrealist movement in Europe and met Breton in France, and later was conversant with the existentialist thinking of Sartre and Camus. He incorporated haiku brevity along with Buddhist/Taoist thought from Asia and mythological imagery from India. He was a prolific essayist, both short form and book-length. Primarily though he regarded himself as a poet. For all of this Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

Throughout Paz’s various writings he was keenly interested in sorting out what it means to be Mexican, from the Mayan past which surrounded him, to the existential isolation of the self. Paz understands a particular Mexican dynamic captured most clearly in prose in The Labyrinth of Solitude. His poetry engages this theme repeatedly

Click here to read the full review.

6 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This collection of poems spanning Paz’s writerly life also spans the historical events of the twentieth century and a significant arc of modernism. The book presents the original Spanish on the left, with the English translation on the opposing page. Translations are principally by Eliot Weinberger, but include other poets’ translations, including Rukeyser, Levertov and Bishop.

One critical “orthodoxy” insists that the works solely themselves should be considered in critical reflection; this approach can provide some real satisfactions in reading Paz’s poetry. The reader’s knowledge about the artist’s public life deepens the engagement, especially given the scope of this volume’s collection.

Paz was born in Mexico City at the start of WWI to a Spanish mother and Mexican father. His very heritage, of new and old worlds, seems to set the pattern for his life, of bridging, incorporating. He embraced emergent communism while not officially signing on. He was in Spain for the Civil War on behalf of the resistance to Franco. Later he travelled to the US, where he also taught at Harvard, and in England, teaching at Cambridge. A diplomat for Mexico in Japan first, Paz later was Mexico’s ambassador to India. In 1968 he resigned that position in protest after a brutal police response to protests in Mexico, part of the larger cultural shifts of that era. Yet he sided with government later, on the other side of the divide from Carlos Fuentes over the Sandanista movement. Similarly he had earlier alienated other intellectual writers in his rejection of Castro, and then the later Zapatista movement in Chiapas.

In literary matters, he was warmly embraced by Neruda; had a falling out over Stalinism (Paz by then had rejected the communist realities), with reconciliation near the end of Neruda’s life. He was intrigued by the Surrealist movement in Europe and met Breton in France, and later was conversant with the existentialist thinking of Sartre and Camus. He incorporated haiku brevity along with Buddhist/Taoist thought from Asia and mythological imagery from India. He was a prolific essayist, both short form and book-length. Primarily though he regarded himself as a poet. For all of this Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

Throughout Paz’s various writings he was keenly interested in sorting out what it means to be Mexican, from the Mayan past which surrounded him, to the existential isolation of the self. Paz understands a particular Mexican dynamic captured most clearly in prose in The Labyrinth of Solitude. His poetry engages this theme repeatedly:

from San Ildefonso Nocturne: (trans. Eliot Weinberger)

I am at the entrance to a tunnel
These phrases drill through time.
Perhaps I am that which waits at the end of the tunnel.
I speak with eyes closed.
                         Someone
has planted
           a forest of magnetic needles
in my eyelids,
                  someone
guides the thread of these words.
                                    The page
has become an ants’ nest.
                           The void
has settled at the pit of my stomach.
                                       I fall
endlessly through that void.
                              I fall without falling.
My hands are cold,
                    my feet cold –
but the alphabets are burning, burning.
                                         Space
makes and unmakes itself.
                           The night insists,
the night touches my forehead,
                                touches my thoughts.
What does it want?

This excerpt from the much longer poem in the collection Vuelta/Return (1969-1975) begins with the tunnel drilled through time and inward, from the sense-experience—eyes disabled expressed by the surrealist image of ‘a forest of magnetic needles.’ The letters on the page disorganize themselves like ants tightly bunched together. The poet keeps in touch with his somatic self—stomach, hands, feet, forehead—yet the existential experience is one of estrangement as forces seemingly out the speaker’s control are at work, with a possible but open-ended destination at the end of the tunnel being the speaker . . . if only he could figure out what this “night” wants.

The geographic references of the poem claustrophobically create the same larger global experience for Paz of travel and the return of the collection’s title: Paz repeatedly had to leave Mexico, and return, to find the distance and intimacy he needed to understand himself and his Mexican culture.

The previously cited poem comes later, in the more mature poet’s writing. Yet these themes are clearly, discursively, present at the start of Paz’s poetry writing. This breadth of demonstrated developing themes is one of this book’s strengths.

“The Street” (from poems written 1941-1948), trans. Weinberger

It’s a long and silent street.
I walk in the dark and trip and fall
and get up and step blindly
on the mute stones and dry leaves
and someone behind me is also walking:
if I stop, he stops;
if I run,, he runs. I turn around: no one.
Everything is black, there is no exit,
and I turn and turn corners
that always lead to the street
where no one waits for me, no one follows,
where I follow a man who trips
and gets up and says when he sees me: no one.

Two poems later, at the end of the longer “Interrupted Elegy,” Paz concludes: “The world is circular desert,/heaven is closed and hell is empty.” Such a declarative resolution is characteristic of a younger poet, who nevertheless continues later in the modernist understanding that the spiritual/mythical rather than the religious grounded in dogma and tradition is the arena for locating the self.

I’ll cite one further poem, this a short one similar to “The Street,” but by now Paz has traveled, been introduced to new cultures and mythos. The form of this poem more closely resembles the telegraphic qualities found in the haiku-like form Paz appropriates from his Asian literary experience, but incorporates Hindu imagery:

“Humayun’s Tomb” (from Ladera Este/East Slope, 1962-1968):

To the debate of wasps
the dialectic of monkeys
the chirping of statistics
it offers
             (tall pink flame
made of stone and air and birds
time at rest on the water)

the architecture of silence

Here is the more mature poet, perhaps a bit more at peace with himself yet still looking. Poetically the omission of most punctuation, the succinctness of images, coherence of flow of ideas all show the life-reflection, control, and elegance of a poet with even greater mastery over his craft.

Eliot Weinberger may share credit with other poets for bringing Paz’s poetry to the English speaking world, but he has been the principal, dedicated translator and proponent. New Directions Press has several of the individual books, represented in this volume, in Weinberger’s translation. New Directions also brought out the Weinberger edited The Complete Poems, 1957-1987. The current volume under review omits some of the poems from the Complete collection, but includes poems that precede and follow the ’57-’87 period.

Special note in any review should probably mention the pivotal, book-length Piedra de Sol/Sunstone (1957) presented in its entirety; this specific work was a breakthrough for Paz, announcing his interest in and influence by his own ancestors’ Mayan tradition, now brought into conversation with Paz in his modern moment. In addition, the attentive reader can track throughout this present collection Paz’s erotically charged imagery as one recurrent way to the self struggling—and sometimes overcoming—the isolation of self.

I close with an appreciation for the strength of Paz’s poetry, and Weinberger’s translation. Specifically, in my personal experience of reading poetry, I greatly value immersion where I can hear the poet’s voice. Anthologies and journals which print one or two poems by a writer can sometimes hold my attention, but I can’t get the voices as they shift. The pleasure of this volume is the consistent, almost gentle, voice that lays out for the reader Paz’s convictions and questions. “Gentle” though should not indicate easy or peaceful or unquestioning. Paz raises his anxieties, doubts, and disruptions. Rather it is the artfulness with which he does so that carries the reader along.

11 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just received this email from New Directions, and rather than summarize and all that, I’m just going to let it stand alone. (Ironic that this comes out on the day of the Nobel Prize announcement . . . ). So here’s a letter from ND publisher Barbara Epler:

October 11, 2012

Late last week, we learned that famed poet, publisher, bookstore owner, artist, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been awarded the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club, a chapter of the larger PEN organization. Established this year, the prize carries a 50,000 Euro financial award.

After doing some research on the Pannonius Prize, Ferlinghetti discovered that a sizeable portion of the prize money had been provided by the Hungarian government, which has been widely accused of officially and unofficially stifling free speech. In light of this news, Ferlinghetti decided to decline the award, and sent this message to the President of the Hungarian PEN Club:

Dear Geza Szocs,

After careful research into the Pannonius Prize and its sponsors, including the present Hungarian government, I have come to the following conclusions: Since the Prize is partially funded by the present Hungarian government, and since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept the Prize in the United States. Thus I must refuse the Prize in its present terms.

However, assuming the total devotion of the Hungarian PEN Club and yourself to freedom of speech and social justice, I propose that the Prize money be used to set up a fund to be administered by the Hungarian PEN Club, said fund to be devoted solely to the publication of Hungarian authors whose writings support total freedom of speech, civil rights, and social justice. These are the only terms under which I can accept the Pannonius Prize.

In defense of individual freedom and democratic institutions, I am faithfully yours,

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

At that point Mr. Szocs offered to exclude the Hungarian government’s contribution to the prize money and to begin negotiations surrounding the proposed fund, but Ferlinghetti is steadfast in his views, saying:

I hereby refuse the Prize in all its forms. There is no possibility of my accepting the prize in a ceremony in the United States or elsewhere. I am sorry it has come to this, and I am grateful to those in Hungary who may have had the purest motives in offering me the Prize.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been a bastion of the New Directions list for over sixty years, and we are proud of his decision and stand by him in his fight for free speech.

Barbara Epler
President, New Directions

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes and is available from New Directions.

Here’s part of his review:

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

Click here to read his entire review.

17 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Susan Sontag called László Krasznahorkai the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which would make Satantango his magnum opus of the apocalypse. The end of the world is coming in a deluge of rain that is turning the world into a muddy wasteland that mirrors the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. Satantango is a novel about the end of the world that reflects on the everyday inner despair of humanity in the present day as much as in 1985 Hungary, when it was written.

It’s hard to fathom a novel as profound and globally-relevant as Satantango taking twenty-seven years to come out in an English translation. Not only was Satantango Krasznahorkai’s breakout debut novel, but it was turned into an infamous Belá Tarr movie in 1994—infamous because the film is seven and a half hours long, making Satantango officially the first novel I’ve ever read that took less time to read than to watch the movie—which gave Krasznahorkai a name in the realm of international literature. It’s a helluva movie, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie constantly the entire time I was reading the book, because Tarr and Krasznahorkai coexist in another artistic universe (Krasznahorkai has collaborated with Tarr on five movies, some adapted from his own novels, including “The Werckmeister Harmonies” adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), and Tarr’s adaptation visually captures the mire and the human catastrophe that is at the heart of Satantango.

The book is a much easier pill to swallow for the reader than the film; even casual readers can dive right in to the text and find themselves immersed in the world that Krasznahorkai creates, all thanks to George Szirtes’ superb translation (which supposedly took eight years to finish, one of the reasons for the twenty-seven year delay!!). Each chapter consists of one long unbroken paragraph, which gives a sense of breathless anxiety that propels itself along with a darkly funny narrative touch throughout, and makes the reading of the work seem much less frightening than a casual reader might think when they read the words “one-paragraph chapters.”

That’s not to say that the text is easy to digest, because if you truly think about what you’re reading, you are bound to feel some sense of disconsolate melancholy, which seems to be precisely the state of being that Krasznahorkai is the master of describing:

He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity . . . and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.

The plot is a classic “return” story: the remaining dozen inhabitants on a failed collective farm (or estate, as it is called in the text) in late-era Communist Hungary exist in a hopeless void of inaction after a mysterious character named Irimiás had come into their lives several years before with the promise of redemption and then subsequently disappeared and is presumed dead; but his return to the collective farm, along with his sidekick Petrina, is the narrative backbone of the novel. The first six chapters exist as six spokes along the same time/space axis: six different narrative points of view prepare the reader for Irimiás’ return by following different characters as they make their way to the bar on the estate, culminating in the drunken dance at the center of the novel that gives the novel its name. The next six chapters recede in number from VI to I as the characters process Irimiás’ return and make plans for the future. Krasznahorkai has said that he likes the idea of the tango as a dance that involves moving forward only to move backwards again, and so he structured the novel, at least in terms of the chapters, along a tango course—forward motion, then backwards again as everything is resolved/dissolved.

The dance of the tango, forward and then backward again, like the feeble steps of the estate as they slog their way through the fields towards a vague Promised Land, demonstrates how far outside of our human understanding of time this novel works. All sense of time is gone in Satantango; the action could have taken place in the 1980s, or yesterday, or 100 years ago; time is an immaterial and forgotten element of existence. None of the clocks seem to work, or if they do, they’re set to the wrong time. And on a cosmological scale, a book about Hungary’s geological history morphs into a work of prophecy, wherein billions of years of natural history culminates in a here and now devoid of historical resonance—time is nothing here, the end is coming:

. . .the book being written now in the present and now in the past tense—confused him, so he couldn’t be sure whether he was reading a work of prophecy regarding the earth’s condition after the demise of humanity or a proper work of geological history based on the planet on which he actually lived . . . he was lost in successive waves of time, coolly aware of the minimal speck of his own being, seeing himself as the defenseless, helpless victim of the earth’s crust, the brittle arc of his life between birth and death caught up in the dumb struggle between surging seas and rising hills, and it was as if he could already feel the gentle tremor beneath the chair supporting his bloated body, a tremor that might be the harbinger of seas about to break in on him, a pointless warning to flee before its all-encompassing power made escape impossible, and he could see himself running, part of a desperate, terrified stampede comprising stags, bears, rabbits, deer, rats, insects and reptiles, dogs and men, just so many futile, meaningless lives in the common, incomprehensible devastation, while above them flapped clouds of birds, dropping in exhaustion, offering only possible hope.

Irimiás, whose return offers the residents’ only hope of salvation, is the most important character in the novel; he is given three chapters through which his motives, intentions, and character traits become known, yet he remains the most mysterious and enigmatic character in the novel and in recent literary history. What drives Irimiás is a question that Krasznahorkai does not answer. Is he savior or antichrist, or just a conman, or all of the above, or none of the above? He is alternately described as “Lord of Misrule” and “a great magician,” and he is prone to bouts of philosophizing, denouncement, and moralizing, though he is also upbraided by the Communist authorities who dispatch him on a mysterious mission after he is released from prison. The vagueness in Krasznahorkai’s portrait of Irimiás is deliberate, and corresponds to similar treatment of the novel’s main questions throughout.

“God is not made manifest in language, you dope. He’s not manifest in anything. He doesn’t exist.” “Well, I believe in God!” Petrina cut in, outraged. “Have some consideration for me at least, you damn atheist!” “God was a mistake, I’ve long understood there is zero difference between me and a bug, or a bug and a river, or a river and a voice shouting above it. There’s no sense or meaning in anything. It’s nothing but a network of dependency under enormous fluctuating pressures. It’s only our imaginations, not our sense, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” “But how can you say this now, after what we’ve just seen?” Petrina protested. Irimiás made a wry face. “That’s precisely why we are trapped forever. We’re properly doomed. It’s best not to try either, best not believe your eyes. It’s a trap, Petrina. And we fall into it every time. We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks. We’re trapped, end of story.”

The core issues at the heart of Satantango are big-topic issues of existence and the lack of existence: the beginning and the end of humanness, humanity, history, politics, economics, progress, death, redemption, salvation loneliness, despair, the apocalypse. Krasznahorkai provides no answers to any of the questions he poses. The work could be read as a condemnation of the Soviet-Communist system of economic and social constructions; or it could be read as a biblical metaphor; it could be read as a satire of mankind’s susceptibility to fall victim to every conjurer, ruse, and Ponzi scheme; or it could be, and this is most likely, all of the above, none of the above, and a something else that exists just outside of our human understanding.

They were sober at a stroke but they simply couldn’t understand what had happened to them in the last few hours. What demonic power had taken possession of them, stifling every sane and rational impulse? What was it that had driven them to lose their heads and attack each other ‘like filthy pigs when the swill is late’? What made it possible for people like them—people who had finally managed to emerge from years of apparently terminal hopelessness to breathe the dizzying air of freedom—to rush around in senseless despair, like prisoners in a cage so that even their vision had clouded over? What explanation could there be for them to ‘have eyes’ only for the ruinous, stinking, desolate aspect of their future home, and completely lose track of the promise that ‘what had fallen would rise again’! It was like waking from a nightmare.

Out of all the insanely influential world writers and works to whom Krasznahorkai is compared (Saramago, Bolaño, Foster Wallace, Bulgakov, etc.), Satantango most closely resembles Gogol’s Dead Souls, another novel (or poem, as Gogol called it, a tag that I would not hesitate to apply to Satantango as well, especially with the accomplished poet George Szirtes at the helm of the translation) with a conman at the center, traveling across a ravaged countryside alternating between scenes of the darkest hilarity and the banality of the everyday, all the while painting a timeless portrait of humanity rotten at the core without any hope for change.

And for what it’s worth, in an era of digital ownership, the hardcover first edition of Satantango that New Directions put out is simply gorgeous; the black traced-line cover is striking, and the inside front and back covers feature black matted paper with silvery white text of reviews of Krasznahorkai and Satantango. The book feels damn good to hold in your hands and read, and in sum, Satantango is exactly the type of book worth buying because the value of the physical product contributes to the invaluable content of the text itself. Read it, buy it, hunker down with the endtimes.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, which is translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin and is available from New Directions.

Here is part of her review:

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Click here to read the entire review.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Just as the space surrounded by four walls has a specific value, provoked not so much because it is a space but because it is surrounded by walls. Otávio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both. . . Besides: how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and soul?

This startling metaphor is remarkably precise: haven’t we all felt, at one time or another, “enclosed” by a loved one, albeit protected? Don’t the structural walls of relationships also compromise our identity, defining us with a substance that is not ourselves? Add to these astute insights Lispector’s radical writing style, which mirrors the process of thinking – much like in Woolf’s The Waves. Though nominal events do take place in the text – Joana’s father dies; Joana goes to live with her aunt; Joana attends boarding school, gets married, and leaves her husband – inner mental life constitutes the book’s central concern. Fraught with dense introspection, many pages are devoted solely to Joana’s philosophical quandaries:

. . .She asked herself many questions, but she could never answer herself: she’d stop in order to feel. How was a triangle born? As an idea first? Or did it come after the shape had been executed? Would a triangle be born fatally? Things were rich. – She would want to spend time on the question. But love invaded her. Triangle, circle, straight lines. . . As harmonious and mysterious as an arpeggio. Where does music go when it’s not playing? -She asked herself. And disarmed she would answer: may they make a harp out of my nerves when I die.

Indeed, Joana is a beautiful thinker, but the wilderness of her imagination also isolates her from others. Other characters perceive her with confusion, sometimes labeling her “evil” or “unfeeling”: “She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her,” her aunt says. On the other hand, her husband, Otávio, is baffled by the fatal mix of attraction and repulsion Joana arouses in him. Nonetheless, he can’t deny the way she profoundly impacts his life: “She would rise up in him, not in his head like a common memory, but in the center of his body, vague and lucid, interrupting his life like the sudden pealing of a bell.” A sort of irony emerges in the push-pull attitude Joana exhibits toward relationships, alternately embracing others for the comfort they promise and rejecting them when they burden her.

I question whether the actions and emotions Joana unleashes are really “evil” – they’re intense, for sure, but I think Joana is better described as amoral. And it’s precisely this lack of conventional mores that allows her to imagine and discover so much: because she moves through life without needing to label anything ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ Joana can think unrestrained. No thought or feeling is taboo for her, even if it proves her animal nature. If a man devouring meat allures her, or if contrived human “goodness” disgusts her, she’s not embarrassed or afraid to report it with gritty impartiality:

. . .goodness makes me want to be sick. Goodness was lukewarm and light. It smelled of raw meat kept for too long. Without entirely rotting in spite of everything. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned a little, enough to keep it a piece of lukewarm, quiet meat.

. . . she had seen a greedy man eating. She had secretly watched his bulging eyes, gleaming and stupid, trying not to miss the slightest trace of flavor. And his hands, his hands. One holding a fork with a piece of bloody meat (not warm and quiet, but very much alive, ironic, immoral) skewered on it, the other twitching on the tablecloth, pawing it nervously in his urgency to eat another mouthful already. . .The ferocity, the richness of his color. . . A shiver had run down Joana’s spine, with the sorry cup of coffee in front of her. But she wouldn’t be able to tell afterwards if it had been out of repugnance or fascination and lust. Both no doubt. . . As if she were watching someone drink water only to discover her own thirst, profound and ancient.

As difficult of a heroine as Joana is, and as difficult as Lispector’s prose may be – sometimes verging on abstraction – there’s something deeply relatable about both: a deep yearning to understand and to be understood permeates the text of this book. Beneath the surface of her words, Joana is deeply self-conscious, frustrated with her ability to say what she actually means. Wearily, she repeats:

‘Yes, I know. . . The distance that separates emotions from words. I’ve already thought about that. And the most curious thing is that the moment I try to speak not only do I fail to express what I feel but what I feel slowly becomes what I say. Or at least what makes me act is not, most certainly, what I feel but what I say.’

This is the challenge, which Moser points to in his introduction, that forms the crux of the book: to capture “the symbol of the thing in the thing itself;” to successfully unite words with meaning and emotions. This linguistic struggle parallels Joana’s own psychological struggle to make herself understood in relation to others, while simultaneously preserving her individuality. Should she exist alone, full-fledged – like a solitary word – symbolizing only that which she contains in her own form? Or should she attach herself to other layers of meaning – people, beliefs, or God – which will necessarily plaster themselves over her own essential meaning?

Joana’s conundrum, though complex, is common. Haven’t we all been bound in the archetypal struggle of communication at some point? “Try to understand my heroine, Aunty, listen,” Joana says. “She is vague and audacious. She doesn’t love, she isn’t loved. . . However what Joana has inside her is something stronger than the love that people give and what she has inside her demands more than the love people receive. Do you understand, Aunty? I wouldn’t call her a hero, as I promised Daddy myself.” Yet Joana is a heroine of sorts: as much as she might defy our expectations, she’s brave enough to tell the truth. By maintaining her selfhood to the last, Joana gives us something deeply real. Though the truth may not be convenient or comfortable, those who have the courage to tell it are the real heroes.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque, which Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey translated from the Spanish and is available from New Directions.

Enrique Vila-Matas was born in Barcelona in 1948. His novels have been translated into eleven languages and honored by many prestigious literary awards including the Prix Médicis Etranger. He has received Europe’s most prestigious awards and been translated into twenty-seven languages.

Here is part of his review:

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:

He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

Once a successful publisher of important works and great authors, Riba has since closed his Barcelona-based publishing house and finds he has little to look forward to in either his personal or professional affairs. Approaching his sixtieth birthday, he despairs his increasingly solitary milieu, marked as much by his failing marriage and tenuous abstention from alcohol as by his constant lamenting over his lost career. Intrigued by the concept of the hikikomori (a phenomenon prevalent in japan, characterized by individuals, usually male, whom have chosen for themselves a life of extraordinary isolation and social withdrawal), perhaps as an explanation for his own existential malaise, Riba’s own life begins to resemble that of an awkward outcast, marked by an internet addiction that consumes as many as fourteen hours in a single day.

After recalling a “strange, striking dream he’d had in the hospital when he fell seriously ill two years ago,” Riba decides to set about planning a trip to Dublin. The impetuses for this excursion are many, not the least of which is an opportunity to stage a funeral for the age of print and “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” The date Riba sets for this requiem is none other than June 16, the very day on which James Joyce set his Ulysses, and commemorated annually as “Bloomsday.” With plan in place, Riba enlists the company of three writer friends to join him and his venture in the Irish capital.

Vila-Matas, as in his other works already translated from the Spanish, crafted Dublinesque in a meta-fictional, semi-autobiographical fashion. Forever fascinated by the nature of enigmatic authors, Vila-Matas works into the narrative references to authors both living and dead (including Julien Gracq, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Georges Perec, Paul Auster, John Banville, Brendan Behan, Italo Calvino, Rodrigo Fresán and his late friend Roberto Bolaño). Dublinesque is also, in part, an homage to both Joyce and his fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, both of whom loom large in the plot, structure, and thematic essence of the story itself.

Riba’s wife, Celia, a museum employee and recent convert to Buddhism, shares her name with the title character’s lover in Beckett’s Murphy. As well, the rocking chair in which Riba spends much of his time in Dublinesque’s final section is an allusion to the same piece of furniture in which Beckett’s Murphy whiles away many of his days. A character resembling a young Ceckett makes several mysterious appearances and leads Riba to seek out his identity, in hopes of, perhaps discovering that this fellow is the unknown, genius writer for whom Riba has been searching for his entire career. While in Dublin, Riba delves into a Beckett biography by James Knowlson (presumably damned to fame), shortly after remembering the surprise of reading a novel that featured “a character who’s a real person.”

Riba’s fascination with (and seemingly extensive knowledge of) Ulysses figures prominently into the story, as well. Riba makes repeated mention of the modernist novel’s sixth chapter (“Hades”), wherein Leopold Bloom and others attend a funeral for Paddy Dignam. It is during the funeral scene that Bloom encounters the mysterious Macintoshed character, much as Riba espies the young Beckettian man during his requiem for “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” Vila-Matas was himself one of the founding members of “The Order of Finnegans (La Orden del Finnegans)” (a society comprised of a small number of other Spanish writers “with the sole purpose of venerating James Joyce’s Ulysses”).

Riba’s “remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text” is worked playfully throughout the novel, especially given Vila-Matas’s decision to employ the Joycean and Beckettian allusions that shape the narrative in which Riba lives. “Dublinesque,” the Philip Larkin poem from which the novel draws its name (about a prostitute’s passing funeral), is but another example of the way Vila-Matas incorporates actual literature into his dirge of the forsaken art. Riba, perhaps resulting from his compulsive need to bring the imagery and incidents of that formative dream (or premonition?) into reality, begins to wonder whether his own life has come to resemble not merely a work of fiction, but the entirety of literature’s arcing curve itself, from great heights to pitiable ruination:

Only he—no one else—knows that on the one hand, it’s true, there are those serious slight discomforts, with their monotonous sound, similar to rain, occupying the bitterest side of his days. And on the other, the tiny great events: his private promenade, for example, along the lengths of the bridge linking the almost excessive world of Joyce with Beckett’s more laconic one, and which, in the end, is the main trajectory—as brilliant as it is depressing—of the great literature of recent decades: the one that goes from the richness of one Irishman to the deliberate poverty of the other; from Gutenberg to Google; from the existence of the sacred (Joyce) to the somber era of the disappearance of God (Beckett).

While Riba laments the passing of the print age, with its celebration of and devotion to the duality of the writer/reader relationship, he, like the era for which he mourns, must endure the perils and hardships that inevitably accompany so splendid a fall from grace (his career, his marriage, his health). That Vila-Matas so adeptly created a work of fiction that simultaneously considers the current state of both publishing and literature (as well as the respective roles of author and reader alike), while allowing the novel itself to serve as a comment on the very subject, is nothing short of a dazzling accomplishment. Vila-Matas, under the guise of fiction, seems to make the case for a future in which the importance of good writing and meaningful stories are afforded their due attention, while the relationship between author (or publisher) and reader is enlivened anew and bolstered for posterity.

Enrique Vila-Matas is undoubtedly one of the finest Spanish authors at work today and Dublinesque offers for display his profuse literary talents. With sharp, distinct prose and often unexpected humor, Vila-Matas is indeed a compelling writer. As a complement to the four books already available in English, one hopes that many more of his two dozen novels (as well as his collections of essays) will soon find their way into translation. Vila-Matas’s writing, in addition to providing fantastic stories and striking insights, is consistently amongst the most original work being produced today, and stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the banality and bankruptcy of what all too often now passes as popular literature: “the Gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion.”

15 June 12 | Chad W. Post |

In this week’s podcast, Tom and I talk about BookExpo America and its parties, in particular the rocking one that took place at the New Directions offices. I also rant (a bit) about why I didn’t get to go to Cape Town to present my speech, The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning. There’s also a bit of baseball talk related to a bet that the two of us made, and we throw out ideas for a few future podcasts.

Read More...

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Robert Walser’s The Walk, which comes out from New Directions next week, and was translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky. (The joint translation set-up is explained in Phil’s review.)

Phil was an intern here way way back, and is now working at the Plutzik Foundation, where one of his tasks is to run the foundation’s blog, A Fistful of Words. If you’re not familiar with Hyam Plutzik, I highly recommend checking out this post that Phil wrote for The Paris Review. And while you’re reading Phil’s writing, be sure and check out his personal blog, Gloomy Grammar, where he recently wrote a post about another New Direction book, Antigonicks, Anne Carson’s rendition of Sophokles’s Antigone. (Since when did we start spelling “Sophocles” as “Sophokles”? This is disorienting. Not sure I approve. Although, “Cyklops” is a pretty rad spelling. Ikarus. Hmm.)

Here’s a bit from Phil’s review:

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Click here to read the entire piece.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the narrator of Robert Walser’s The Walk, walking is the better part of writing. Shortly before declaring his arrival at “something like the peak” of this 90-page Pearl from New Directions (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—more on that in a second), Walser’s narrator delivers a brilliant defense of the writer’s habit of walking, which looks to too many observers like idleness but is, he declares, a vital part of his technique. “Do you realize that I am working obstinately and tenaciously with my brain,” he explains to a tax collector, “when I present the appearance of a simultaneously heedless and out-of-work, negligent, dreamy, idle pickpocket, lost out in the blue . . . ?” He goes on—and on; Walser did not write dialogue. His characters declaim, often through bizarre turns:

Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heels all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled, bewildered eyes of the thinker and poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’

Elsewhere in the speech the narrator lays out the argument that walking is his way to observe, experience the world, gather “reports” and scenes which will serve as fodder for his other occupation. The above paragraph is a good example of the rhetorical gusto that is frequent in Walser’s work, usually in the service of irony. In a preface, Bernofsky describes the “straight-faced and earnest” quality of this and other works of the later-period Walser, as a contrast to the “thickly layered ironies of the Berlin period that preceded it;” in The Walk, such bravado is actually part of the narrator’s personal conflict. Early in the story he declares, “On account of this haughty bearing, this domineering attitude, I shall soon, as will be learned, have to take myself to task.” But, despite his verbose and aggrandized tone, the writer and walker narrating The Walk is, the reader feels, sincere in his belief that one cannot write if one does not walk, and that the writing justifies the walking.

Unfortunately, a writer cannot be writing while he is walking, and vice versa. When he wants to take a break, to stop writing, what does he do? “Relax in brief respite,” says the narrator. “Writers who understand their profession at least a little take the same as easily as possible. From time to time they like to lay their pens aside a while.” The novel begins at the start of his walk: “I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.” Writing and walking, however codependent, are to some extent irreconcilable pursuits. And one may have one’s preference: our narrator “loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.” (The pun on “shade,” intended or not, seems to wink at the reader by alluding to the “phantoms” of the writing room. Whether or not a similar pun occurs here in the German I cannot say, but that need not matter for my enjoyment of it in the English I am reading. More, again, on this, in a moment.)

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Would I have noticed and paid so much attention to these distinctions had I skipped the preface? Perhaps not. A preface or introduction offers context for the work about to be presented, which may or may not be helpful. My enjoyment of the book was no less for having read Bernofsky’s preface, my grasp of the philosophical and emotional complexity of the narrator no more certain (The Walk is, to be sure, a difficult book, for all of its 90 pages). But—less enjoyable, more certain, than what? I only read the novel and its preface in the one order. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not to save the preface till afterwards. But I will also warn the reader that in detailing some of Walser’s revisions, Bernofksy spoils the ending of the book, the power of which is partly (not entirely) thanks to a delayed reveal. The spoiler doesn’t ruin the experience—I still read the book twice in one weekend, to my increasing pleasure and puzzlement—but it might have been omitted, or the Preface relocated to an Afterword.

There’s more to be said about this book as a translation and as a novel. Concerning the latter, Walser’s humor is unrelenting, which makes the inward-turning ending all the more poignantly sad. Among the narrator’s hilarious apostrophes to dogs, or to no one in particular concerning the heavenliness of children, there’s a weird scene in which the narrator is threatened with force-feeding by a matronly Frau Aebi. That this turns out to be Frau Aebi’s joke is, to me, actually more disturbing than the forcefeeding itself would have been, which reinforces my sense that Walser is deliberately experimenting with irony and sincerity.

As a translation, this may become an important book for the unusual case which the text presents. Depending on its reception by critics better qualified than I, perhaps it will help to advance or complicate the ongoing debate concerning reading and review practices for translated works. On May 3, Bernofsky contributed to a panel discussion on the very subject in the PEN World Voices Festival, in which she expressed her opinion that translations ought to be judged according to their success as a piece of writing in the target language, to an extent independent of the original. Her respect for Middleton’s text of The Walk, without which one imagines she would have retranslated the work entirely on her own, further demonstrates her position.

Lorin Stein, a translator and editor of the Paris Review, was also on the panel at PEN. He took the very different view that translators ought to be less visible and “minimize the damage” to the original which all translation must necessarily cause, perhaps in that it strips from the work its original sound. Stein also posited that translation adds an apparatus to a work, which publishers, editors, and translators ought to minimize (for instance, Stein insists on not printing his own name on the jacket of his published translations) in order to deliver the work and its author unadorned to the reader. Bernofsky’s preface, including the revision and translation history of The Walk, is an elaborate and complicated apparatus to be sure. But, to reiterate, the jury is out as to whether I think it enriched or detracted from my experience of the book. I’ve had one experience of The Walk for which I am very glad. Other readers will, I hope, have theirs.

21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The finished copies of the four new Lispector translations—Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, The Passion According to G.H., and Agua Viva—and in addition to creating a picture of Lispector when you put the fronts together (click here to see what I’m talking about), if you flip the books over, you can create a second image of Lispector:

Beautiful. And reason #765 why you should buy—and READ—all four of these.

14 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil, which is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer, and was recently released by New Directions.

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first came across his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. And continuing our baseball theme, it’s worth noting that Jeremy is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.

Here’s the opening of his review:

As the pool of Roberto Bolaño’s as yet untranslated (or unpublished) work draws ever shallower, fans of the late Chilean novelist and poet are left hungering for whatever wayward morsels still remain. While those eager to devour something as bountiful as The Savage Detectives or 2666 are likely to be left unsated, Bolaño’s residual writings nonetheless offer a complementary (if not integral) glimpse into his towering and singular body of work. So it is with The Secret of Evil, a collection of 19 mostly unfinished pieces found amongst the files on Bolaño’s computer following his 2003 death.

Ignacio Echevarría, Spanish critic and Bolaño’s literary executor, penned a preliminary note to The Secret of Evil that outlines the provenance of the book’s contents. Despite the undated nature of these orphaned pieces, it appears that Bolaño was working on them in the months preceding his death. Echevarría offers insight into the often problematic charge of determining which of Bolaño’s stories or items had, in fact, already been completed:

“. . . the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches. The task is further complicated by Bolaño’s progressive radicalization of what I have called his poetics of inconclusiveness. And to make the distinction more difficult still, Bolaño rarely began to write a story without giving it a title and immediately establishing a definite tone and atmosphere; his writing, which is always captivating, virtually never stumbles or hesitates.”

Despite the arduousness of Echevarría’s attempts to clarify a particular piece’s state of completion, the writing in The Secret of Evil never reads as if it were hastily constructed, but rather, at times, simply unfinished.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As the pool of Roberto Bolaño’s as yet untranslated (or unpublished) work draws ever shallower, fans of the late Chilean novelist and poet are left hungering for whatever wayward morsels still remain. While those eager to devour something as bountiful as The Savage Detectives or 2666 are likely to be left unsated, Bolaño’s residual writings nonetheless offer a complementary (if not integral) glimpse into his towering and singular body of work. So it is with The Secret of Evil, a collection of 19 mostly unfinished pieces found amongst the files on Bolaño’s computer following his 2003 death.

Ignacio Echevarría, Spanish critic and Bolaño’s literary executor, penned a preliminary note to The Secret of Evil that outlines the provenance of the book’s contents. Despite the undated nature of these orphaned pieces, it appears that Bolaño was working on them in the months preceding his death. Echevarría offers insight into the often problematic charge of determining which of Bolaño’s stories or items had, in fact, already been completed:

. . . the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches. The task is further complicated by Bolaño’s progressive radicalization of what I have called his poetics of inconclusiveness. And to make the distinction more difficult still, Bolaño rarely began to write a story without giving it a title and immediately establishing a definite tone and atmosphere; his writing, which is always captivating, virtually never stumbles or hesitates.

Despite the arduousness of Echevarría’s attempts to clarify a particular piece’s state of completion, the writing in The Secret of Evil never reads as if it were hastily constructed, but rather, at times, simply unfinished. Some of the included stories may well have an ambiguous ending, while others leave off in a way that seemingly indicates that they were abandoned pending resumption at a later date.

Of the nineteen pieces that compose The Secret of Evil, three have appeared previously in English translation.1 “Vagaries on the Literature of Doom” (a speech about the state of post-Borgesian Argentine literature), “Sevilla Kills Me” (an unfinished, if somewhat similarly themed address), and “Beach” (progenitor of the “Bolaño was once a heroin junkie” speculations since debunked by his wife, as well as by friend and fellow author, Enrique Vila-Matas) were all published in Between Parentheses. As with much of Bolaño’s writing, the line between fictional creation and autobiographical sketch blur easily, as is evident in “I Can’t Read,” a “story” about his son Lautaro’s humorous antics during Bolaño’s first return trip to his native Chile in nearly two and a half decades. “I Can’t Read” demonstrates a lighter, more playful (and ever self-effacing) Bolaño, and is one of the book’s stronger pieces, despite it remaining, sadly, forever unfinished.

Three of The Secret of Evil’s stories, “The Old Man of the Mountain,” “Death of Ulises,” and “The Days of Chaos” feature recurrent Bolaño character (and autobiographical alter ego) Arturo Belano, two of which portray him well beyond his heady, itinerant Savage Detectives years. Daniela de Montecristo (of Nazi Literature and 2666 fame) makes a brief appearance in her namesake story, “Daniela,” wherein she recalls the loss of her virginity at age thirteen. “Scholars of Sodom” (in two versions) imagines V.S. Naipaul upon a visit to Buenos Aires. “Labyrinth” is vaguely evocative of the first part of 2666, “The Part about the Critics.” “‘Muscles,’” Echevarría surmises, is “probably the beginning of an unfinished novel, perhaps an early version of Una Novelita Lumpen” (a 2002 novella yet to be rendered into English). The collection’s title story is amongst the best (despite its brevity) of those selected for inclusion, and offers a seedy, nocturnal milieu that Bolaño was so adept at creating. The most surprising of the stories is “The Colonel’s Son,” a nightmarish tale wherein the narrator recounts a chilling zombie movie he viewed on television the night before.

The Secret of Evil, quite obviously, will appeal most greatly to those already won over by Bolaño’s extraordinary body of work. Neophytes may well find this a difficult collection to make sense of, as the nature of the book lends itself to those long since familiar with the style and themes that characterize the Chilean’s masterful fiction. This is most certainly not the place for a newcomer to start, but for the devotee, a subterranean expanse of narrative possibilities and literary what-ifs await.

You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about four a.m., I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless that i tell you i just about fell of my chair.

1 The three previously published pieces that originally appeared in Between Parentheses were translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, and the sixteen new to this collection were rendered by Chris Andrews.

16 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

All four galleys arrived today, and every single book I was planning on reading has been pushed aside for the moment . . .

(ONE COMPLAINT: There is really no reason whatsoever to include a quote from J-Franz on the front of Near to the Wild Heart. I saw that and threw up a little bit in my mouth, especially considering that—at least based on all of his fiction and that totally mental Harper’s essay from a while back—my taste in literature and Franzen’s tend to overlap not at all.)

3 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean

Language: Spanish

Country: Spain
Publisher: New Directions

Why This Book Should Win: Vila-Matas is most definitely one of the best writers working today. His games with form and structure are unparalleled. And this ironic gem of a book includes Marguerite Duras as a character.

Today’s post is by Monica Carter, BTBA judge, writer, reader of French, and runner of Salonica World Lit. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

Never Any End to Paris is a novel for anyone who has wanted to live in Paris, wanted to be a writer, went to Paris and failed its promise and offerings, tried to be a writer and failed its promise and offerings, loved Paris, hated Paris, loved Hemingway, hated Hemingway, wanted to live the life of A Moveable Feast but decades later, loved Marguerite Duras, hated Marguerite Duras, loved the idea of living in a writer’s garret, wanted to runaway to Paris to become a writer, or more specifically, a reincarnation of Hemingway himself and finally, this is a novel for everyone who likes novels. I am emphatically telling you it is virtually impossible to dislike this novel. Told from the point of view of a novelist about to give a lecture, it is clear that the “novelist” is thin scrim for the author. When the novelist was young, he spent two years in Paris trying to write a novel, The Lettered Assassin, while living in Marguerite Duras’s garret. He has returned to the city of Paris many years later as a successful writer, wondering through his old haunts with his wife and reminiscing about the unhappy years he spent failing his dream while running around Paris with the likes of Duras, Barthes, and Perec.

But what is at the core of this novel is the myth of Hemingway. Whenever someone dreams of being a writer, it’s inevitable that they will discover Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and begin plotting a way to while their days away in some Parisian café penning the next great novel. Our narrator is no exception and even takes it a step further by convincing himself that he looks like Hemingway, despite the protestations of others and the humiliation of being kicked out of a Hemingway look-a-like contest in a Key West bar. The beauty and tragedy of Hemingway was that he created a mythic image of himself as author—a man who runs with bulls and hunts wild animals, lives a life of adventure and daring, with barely enough time to dash off brilliant novels and short stories reeking of courage and masculinity—that was destined to snuff out Hemingway the man. Since this mythic image of Hemingway has been immortalized, it has hurdled through time capturing the dreams and imaginations of any would-be writer. This ideological literary behemoth refuses to jump the shark despite the mocking undertow for its cartoonish he-man extremes perfectly reflected in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Writers don’t want to surrender this image go because it encapsulates a life lived as art, for art. This is why Never Any End to Paris is so brilliant. It’s a rebuttal to Mr. Hemingway in the form of a failed homage. Vila-Matas delivers in sophisticated prose, an ironic tale of trying to live the dream and being disappointed by it, with hilarious aplomb tempered by gloomy flourishes. In the end of his two-year journey, he concludes he is just a man who will find his own way through his life as a writer and it will never equal the life Hemingway created of himself as a writer. And thanks to Anne McLean’s integrity and dedication to Vita-Matas’s tone, there is no loss of his wit or self-deprecating style. This is a novel for all novelists and told as well as any tale Papa told. It is a love letter and a Dear John letter to Hemingway and should win for its creativity, honesty and courage to fail at living a dream.

29 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago, Ben Moser was in town for the unfortunately acronymed NeMLA conference. We took advantage of this to host a special RTWCS event to talk to Ben about his biography of Lispector (Why This World, Oxford University Press), his new translation of The Hour of the Star, and the four Lispector books he’s editing for New Directions.

The results were pretty entertaining, in part because Ben (who is also a contributing editor to Harper’s and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle) is so damn entertaining, and in part because Lispector is one of the most interesting literary figures of this past century.

22 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Kornél Esti by Dezsö Kosztolányi, translated by Bernard Adams

Language: Hungarian
Country: Hungary
Publisher: New Directions

Why This Book Should Win: Despite being one of Hungary’s greatest writers, Kosztolányi hasn’t gotten near the attend he deserves in this country. Winning the BTBA could help change that . . .

Today’s post is by Amy Henry. You should visit her website, The Black Sheep Dances.

An “honest town,” where people never lie, makes for some awkward truth-in-advertising:

“Unreadable rubbish . . . latest work of an old writer who has gone senile, not a single copy sold up to now . . . [his] most nauseating, most pretentious verse,” advertises a bookshop window. At the restaurant, “Inedible food, undrinkable drinks. Worse than at home.” This unique city is thriving, because as Kornél Esti informs the narrator, “at home you always have to subtract something from what people tell you, in fact a great deal, while here you always have to add something to it, a little.”

Kornél Esti and the unnamed narrator have formed an unlikely writing partnership, based on an unusual childhood friendship. As children, Esti was wild and impulsive, leading the narrator into constant trouble, especially in that the two of them were nearly indistinguishable in appearance and activities. Having lost touch in later years, they eventually reunite when both men are forty, deciding that Esti’s adventures in Hungary and Italy needed to be recorded. As the one man writes, he implores Esti, “all you need to do is talk.”

Initially, Esti talks about early travels away from home, seeing places he’d only imagined about. He’s so young in his experience that he imagines that the sea is playing hide and seek with him as his train proceeds. Every window, street, and person he meets appears to be created solely for his curious inspection. As the stories continue, Esti’s vision becomes more restrained but never cynical. Whereas at home, the more proper narrator lives a quieter and more placid existence, and the contrast between living by the rules and living outside of them becomes clear.

Herein lay the twist of the novel, written in 1933. How are the two men connected? Could they actually be alternate personalities of the same man? At first, I was convinced of it, as Esti seemed to constantly be in the background, urging his friend to disobey. Their likeness, right down to the same birth day and time, led me to think that Kosztolányi was trying to show the wildly disparate ways one man could behave. Yet deeper into the book, the nature of Esti becomes complete. He is not as wild as initially described, in many places he’s the more pragmatic of his friends. His adventures, while entertaining, are not outrageous.

One story, improbably entitled, “In which he comes into a huge inheritance and learns that it’s hard to get rid of money when a person wants to do only that,” Esti relates the difficulty of giving money away after a sudden windfall. In itself, it’s amusing, but it’s Esti’s reaction to the potential of the story that tells the most, as it seems to reflect on his life as a whole as well as the event:

“So it’s not dull? Interesting enough? Absurd, improbable, incredible enough? Will it be annoying enough to people who look for psychological motivation, understanding, even moral lessons in literature?”

Another story has Esti’s life saved by a stranger, who rescues him from almost certain death in the Danube. The humor of this incident is that Esti feels obligated to the oafish man, who knows how to push the obligation to particular ends, becoming a pest and burden to Esti. This leaves Esti with the only reasonable option: pushing that same man into the Danube on a dark night and running for his own life. That Esti did so at the precise moment his benefactor had recited a long and hideous poem is the irony that Kosztolányi uses to wrap it all up deliciously. Poetry, publishing, and writing factor in as frequent motifs during the novel, and given that the author was all of these as well as a translator, one could assume he based much of the humor and sarcasm on personal experience.

Additionally, Bernard Adams translation of this novel won the PEN Translation Fund Award.

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Review Section”: is a piece by Phillip Witte on Javier Marias’s While the Women Are Sleeping, which is translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and available from New Directions.

Phil is one of our regular reviewers, and one of our former interns. As mentioned in the review, he also interned at New Directions, and is currently working for the Plutzik Foundation, where he’s running their poetry blog, A Fistful of Words. (Definitely check out the blog—Phil’s a great writer and great person and this deserves more attention.)

I believe Marias has a new book coming out in the not-too-distant future, but some unnnamable agent (as in, his name should never be spoken out loud for fear of repercussions sinister and royalty related), sold the rights to this (and some of the ND backlist) to a Big Six publisher. So forget that book and read While the Women Are Sleeping and Your Face Tomorrow. And trade ND editions of his earlier works (Dark Back of Time is a personal favorite) on the black market.

Here’s the opening of Phil’s review:

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Click here to read the full review.

7 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.

Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.

Though the book is not all ghost stories, it does include several, featuring narrators or protagonists enmeshed in their own strange dilemmas of love and selfhood which are complicated by the sudden incursions of a spirit from beyond the grave. “One Night of Love” has its protagonist, who complains of his wife’s lack of interest in lovemaking, discover love letters addressed to his late father from a woman who claims that she is already dead as she writes. The narrator then receives a letter from his dead father’s dead lover, importuning him to exhume his father’s body and cremate it, in order that his spirit will be released and can join her. As the narrator quibbles with himself over whether to hide the letters from his wife, her sexual interest in him mysteriously starts to grow. Another story, “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps,” tells of a young girl who, out of charity, reads to a lonely old woman every day, and before long they are visited by a bullet-ridden ghost who turns out to be the Mexican insurrectionist Emiliano Zapata, coming just to listen quietly to the girl read.

I’m finding it difficult fun to paraphrase a Marias story, they’re so gently off-beat and beautifully constructed. And Marias is bursting with affection for his very human, very living protagonists, as boring and morally repugnant as they might be, which might make my descriptions a little less morally ambiguous than the stories actually are—and challengingly, illuminatingly so, if you’ll pardon all the adverbs. “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban,” my personal favorite, tells of Derek Lilburn, an Englishman “of little imagination, ordinary tastes, and an irrelevant past,” who begins a new teaching job in Madrid on a short-term professional exchange program. He arrives at his new school, where he is given the simple task of locking up the school every Friday night. The first night he is to perform this chore, he is warned to pay no heed to Senor Santiesteban, the ghost who, every single night, bursts out of the school office, takes seven steps over to the hallway bulletin board, tacks up a letter of resignation addressed only to a “Dear Friend,” takes eight steps back into the office, and falls still. Oddly, this ghost is not to be seen, only heard. And no one knows who he was in life, or what he is resigning from, or why: the letter, identical every night, is enigmatically reticent of circumstantial details. Lilburn makes it his personal mission to solve the puzzle, despite the warnings of his superior, Mr. Bayo, who has been down the investigational road and found that it only leads one to admit in frustration that the mystery is unsolvable. The bored and boring Lilburn is undeterred, and shares every tiny discovery with the wearily patient Mr. Bayo, until, finally outdoing his superior, Lilburn finds a way to truly know the ghost—by becoming him, in a strange way that has nothing to do with death.

The private contemplation of death by the living preoccupies many of the stories in this book, but not all of them: see “An Epigram of Fealty,” which tells of a rare book dealer in London who is harangued by a beggar claiming to be John Gawsworth, King of Redonda; or “Gualta,” a brief tale narrating one man’s descent into total ruination after meeting his doppelgänger at a business dinner. The title story, which is the first and longest in the collection, sets the stage for meditating on the imagination’s encounter with death, but it features nothing of the supernatural either. Told from a voyeur’s perspective, the story is strongly reminiscent of Lolita: it depicts an overweight middle-aged man, Viana, who has subscribed his life to his passionate desire for Inès, the daughter of his close friends, whom he meets when she is only seven years old. Now she is twenty-three and they have been living together for five years, to the ruin of his friendship with her parents. He videotapes her body with microscopic attention every day “because she is going to die,” he says, and he wants to have a visual record of her last day on Earth. The narrator watches this videotaping take place on the beach, and then meeting Viana one night beside the hotel pool, he listens to the fat man’s tale. My next thought as I read is that Marias owes much to Nabokov’s sense of narrative play as well—from the first image in the story of the narrator spying on his fellow sunbathers on the beach through his wife’s straw sunhat, this playful seriousness continues through the story’s final lines:

Both were sleeping, that’s why they didn’t wake up or come out onto the balcony, Luisa hadn’t died in my absence, however long that had been—I’d forgotten my watch. Instinctively, I glanced up toward the rooms, toward my balcony, toward all the balconies, and on one of them, I saw a figure wrapped in a sheet toga and heard it call to me twice, saying my name, as mothers say their children’s names. I stood up. On Inès’s balcony, though, whichever it was, there was no one.

The texture of the collection as a whole may seem uneven, but this is hardly a detractor. The ten stories here are dated across a period of more than 30 years, the earliest being “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga,” written (according to the Author’s Note) in 1965, when Marias was just fourteen years old (“be kind, please,” he beseeches his readers). The story is narrated by a man on his deathbed who continues to be able to see and hear but is unable to move or speak, “alive and well” mentally even as his body has ceased to function. A certain lack of maturity in the writing comes across at times with a coarse brashness, a mix of youthful courage and naivete in the tone that can be highly entertaining:

At six o’clock on the evening of the 22nd, when the fever intensified, I tried to get out of bed, but fell back against the pillow, dead. . . . I couldn’t speak or move or open my eyes, even though I could see and hear everything going on around me. My mother-in-law said:

“He’s dead.”

“May he rest in peace,” chorused the others.

Certainly it is the weakest story in the collection, so one wonders why Marias chose to include it. My guess is that it is at the very least to demonstrate that certain themes and meditations that set the writer to work in youth may keep him busy many years later. By including this story along with the much more mature “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps” (dated 1998), with “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiestaban” (1975) and other stories from the mid-80s falling in between, the book offers us a glimpse of a long range of Marias’s life in writing.

The final and perhaps greatest pleasure in the book, however, is found in rereading and discovering that the work is not quite what you thought it was—it’s not the stories only, it’s the soft surprises that burst from Marias’s delicate prose (via Margaret Jull Costa’s rendering in the way that I like best in a translation: she gives the feeling that what you’re reading is decidedly not English, though you can’t point to exactly why it feels that way, as her English at the same time feels perfectly natural—Chris Andrews’s translation of Cesar Aira’s Ghosts is another example of English prose that dexterously retains some flavor of the original Spanish). As I’ve gone back over the book in composing this review, in order to describe these ghosts and enigmatic perusals of death, this is the kind of thing I find—the most careful, disquieting attention to a curious scene:

The young man took some time to reappear—perhaps ghosts go into mourning, for who else has more reason to or perhaps they are still wary, perhaps words can still wound them—but he did finally return, attracted perhaps by the new material, and he continued to listen with the same close attention, not standing up this time, leaning on the chairback, but comfortably installed in the now vacant armchair, his hat dangling from his hand, and sometimes with his legs crossed and holding a lit cigar, like the patriarch he never, in his numbered days, had the chance to become. (from “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps”)

Everyone probably already is, but I’ll say it anyway: Read Marias, read him again, and read him again.

9 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so I don’t really heart Scott Esposito—as well all know, he’s shit at riding a mechanical bull and that is a NECESSARY in my book—but he has been doing a lot of great work lately, and has prompted me to write an appreciation of his recent reviews and round-up of some year end lists that I’ve been digging.

First up though is Scott. The new Quarterly Conversation is out and contains a review of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, (translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) which helps elevate this already brilliant web publication. (More on the new issue next week.)

Just before Thanksgiving, Scott’s review of Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield) was published by The National. As I mentioned yesterday (and in the forthcoming podcast), I just read this and really loved it for its weird and unsettling nature. Here’s Scott’s summary:

A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin’s recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions’ Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with “semiotic signs”, a skewing of a country where rhetoric – and not actual substance – is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia’s affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.

The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they’re injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as “Crypto-Speak” – powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as “everyday speech”.

This is a book that must be read to understood.

But this isn’t the only great book of 2011 that Scott’s recently reviewed—not at all. Next up was his incredibly measured and comprehensive piece at The Critical Flame on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson):

My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space – back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.

The best description for the book – one that might also be suitable for Sebald – is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park . . . it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.

We will be posting our video from the recent Chejfec & Carson RTWCS in the near future . . . But going back to Scott’s run of reviewing great books, his piece on Juan Jose Saer’s Scars (translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph) just ran in Bookforum:

What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters’ attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.

Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book’s larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn’t hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde’s advice that “one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.” In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.

I’ve said it before (and am known to repeat myself), but Scars reestablished my faith in fiction. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. READ IT.

*

Not to shift gears to dramatically, but a lot of year-end lists are coming out (it being December and all), and a few of our titles have been getting some love.

Although it’s not an official “year end” list, I’m probably most psyched that Scars was included on the December list of Movers & Shakers at GoodReads. It is one of only six books featured. TRUST ME, IT IS THAT GOOD.

Over at Emmett Stinson’s blog, he has a list of the “Best Lit in Translation from 2011.” It’s a solid list featuring In Red, Perec’s Raise book, the new translation of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (no, I won’t shut up about how great this is), Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons, and Chejfec’s My Two Worlds. All of these books are worth reading, and I like the way Emmett describes all of these.

Finally, to bring this all back to Scott Esposito, he has an entry at the always fantastic The Millions Year in Reading feature. And one of the books he includes? Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

There are more lists worth discussing (the cool one at Love German Books) and ones better ignored (the so-predictable-that-it’s-almost-not-predictable NY Times list of 100 Notable Books), but for now, this is a decent start . . .

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Victor Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, which is just out from New Directions in Andrew Bromfield’s translation.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading this last night. And I completely agree with Vince’s review: this is a strange, surprising, unsettling, great book. I’ve not read a lot of Pelevin, but after finishing this, I decided to go back and start Homo Zapiens . . .

I’ll be posting more about Hall of the Singing Caryatids in the near future (in a “Why I heart Scott Esposito” post), but for now, I just wanted to mention a few disparate things:

1) Thanks to Vince for reviewing for us. All of our reviewers are spectacular, but I think Vince deserves a special shout-out for so consistently writing interesting, solid reviews. (You can read the all here.)

2) If you have a review in with us and are anxiously awaiting to see it appear, don’t fret! For once (thanks to Six, our current intern), we actually have a backlog of pieces to run. That is not the usual situation, so forgive me for cherishing it. We’re actually set through the holidays, which means that we’ll have good shit to post while everyone is dreading enjoying their family time!

3) This deserves it’s own post, but props to ND for fixing their website. I haven’t explored this as much as I should, but it only took 30 seconds to find The Hall of the Singing Caryatids and download the cover image. This is compared to spending 30 minutes screaming at their old site and its annoying incompleteness. Thank you, ND people. If only all publishers could take your lead.

And now, the opening of Vince’s review:

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot.

Click here to read the full piece.

8 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first I’d heard of Victor Pelevin was while interning at Words Without Borders. We published his story “Akiko” which struck me as the funniest, strangest thing I’d seen in ages. I decided to seek out his other work, and while his book A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia offered some good tales, I was left with a feeling of uncertainty about this Russian literary superstar.

My uncertainty has gone the way of the dinosaur since reading The Hall of Singing Caryatids, the latest work of his to be translated into English. This slim novel manages to amuse, ridicule, horrify, and awe in a very compact space. While reading it, I was consistently surprised and often more than a little uncomfortable. This is a book that is difficult to summarize without misleading. The back cover description implies a bawdy farce with elements of science fiction, but that is not exactly accurate. The strangest moments of The Hall of Singing Caryatids arrive in deceptively benign packages, in slogans on T-Shirts (DKNY: Divine Koran Nourishes You) and dubious quotes posted in club’s cafeteria (“BEAUTY SUCKS D . . K”), and in the moments when the protagonist, Lena, communicates telepathically with a praying mantis.

Let me back up and discuss the plot. Lena auditions for a job in an underground club that caters to the whims of elite clientele. At this point, one can imagine any number of perversions to come, though the book is more in line with Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog than Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Lena gets the job partially because she can sing but also because she looks good naked standing on one leg. The job involves posing as a statue—literally. The girls in the hall are frozen thanks to a shot synthesized from praying mantises. Yeah, it sounds pretty weird, but in the context of the book this all makes sense. It gets stranger, as the girls, in their statue state, are able to communicate with a praying mantis, all while humming and singing for the amusement of largely absent customers. Any hope the reader has for outrageous sex or overly grotesque metaphors of state power and female subjugation are dismissed when the book turns away from such easy shocks and moves toward more impacting territory. This book subverts expectations and writes its own rules, asking for the reader’s trust as it settles on disturbing and oddly beautiful conclusion.

The usual descriptions of post-modern, post-post-modern, magic realist, sci-fi, or absurdist are too heavy with cultural baggage to convey what Pelevin achieves in this tale. While these elements are present, they are not employed in common fashion. Pelevin seems giddy with his literary tinkering, moving the story away from the obvious outrages in the work of his countryman Vladimir Sorokin. There is plenty of opportunity for Pelevin to turn the underground sex club into a Caligula-like romp, but when the one and only sex act finally arrives it is encapsulated with: “And they danced the dance that engenders new life.” Pelevin is not going to waste time and space dwelling on these details, especially when what follows is so much bigger. The end result is a brief, powerful book that is equal parts humorous and unsettling.

6 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Tomas Transtromer.

From the “Guardian:”:

Praised by the judges for “his condensed translucent images” which give us “fresh access to reality”, Tranströmer’s surreal explorations of the inner world and its relation to the jagged landscape of his native country have been translated into 50 languages.

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Tranströmer studied at the University of Stockholm and worked as a psychologist at an institution for young offenders. His first collection of poetry, 17 Dikter (17 Poems, was published in 1954, while he was still at college. Collections including Hemligheter på vägen (1958) and Klangar och spår (1966) reflected on his travels in the Balkans, Spain and Africa, while the poems in Östersjöar (1974) examine the troubled history of the Baltic region through the conflict between sea and land.

He suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write, with his collection Sorgegondolen going on to sell 30,000 copies on its pubilcation in 1996. At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.

Tranströmer has described his poems as “meeting places,” where dark and light, interior and exterior collide to give a sudden connection with the world, history or ourselves. According to the poet, “The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language.”

Of course, seeing that Transtromer is Swedish, a lot of critics are going to get their hackles up, such as this line that opens the same Guardian article: “The Swedish Academy has responded to accusations of insularity over recent years by awarding the 2011 Nobel prize for literature to one of their own.” Snarky!

I don’t actually think this is very controversial at all, but others do . . .

Anyway, congrats to Transtormer and to New Directions, Green Integer, Graywolf, Ecco, and his other publishers. And speaking of ND, the podcast going up tomorrow is a special discussion about the Nobel Prize, with the first half recorded yesterday before the announcement, and the second half today. So Tom can share the excitement of the ND office . . .

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on An Empty Room: Stories by Mu Xin, translated from the Chinese by Toming Jun Liu, and available from New Directions.

Will has become a regular contributor for Three Percent, and is likely to be reviewing even more for us now that he’s graduated with his degree in Japanese and certificate in literary translation.

Here’s the opening of his piece on An Empty Room:

Like countless other foreign authors, Mu Xin is only just now getting his first collection of fiction published in English with An Empty Room, though he has more than twenty books published in mainland China. What seems all the more tragic is that many of these works were written while Xin was living in the United States, as almost all his previous literary and artistic works had been destroyed in the social turmoil of post World War II and mid-Cultural Revolution China. Luckily, English readers now have An Empty Room, a stunning, beautiful collection of fiction that hopefully will lead to more of his work in the future.

In the translator’s afterword for An Empty Room, Toming Jun Liu states that the thirteen stories collected in this collection can be read individually or as a linked story cycle akin to a kind of bildungsroman. And it is quite tempting to do so. Most of the stories are written like long-ago memories being recalled, often melancholy stories of growing up: both the natural growing up of a child, and the unnatural maturation that hits a young adult confronted with tragedy. All the stories are written in the first person too, so though the titles change, the narrator seems constant, even in stories like “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” which follows Alice and takes place in a post-war Britain.

What is particularly interesting about this collection of “stories” is how personal they seem, and how un-story like they can be. “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” is less a short story than a curious little essay, like the kind of internal monologue one has when talking a long walk by themselves (which is actually what the narrator is doing in the piece—talking a stroll through Queens, New York). Translator Jun Liu attributes this as Xin’s affinity with the Chinese prose style sanwen (which is usually just translated as “prose”), a classical Chinese genre of writing that “freely crosses the boundaries of poetry, meditative essay, and fiction.” I personally did not respond as strongly to “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” than to some of the other pieces in this collection, but that, of course, is one of the many road bumps one has to deal with when faced with artistic standards and styles that differ from one’s norm. But what ties almost all the pieces together is their sense of pure storytelling—like the narrator is a close friend, telling you the reader his most cherished personal anecdotes and feelings.

Click here to read the entire review.

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like countless other foreign authors, Mu Xin is only just now getting his first collection of fiction published in English with An Empty Room, though he has more than twenty books published in mainland China. What seems all the more tragic is that many of these works were written while Xin was living in the United States, as almost all his previous literary and artistic works had been destroyed in the social turmoil of post World War II and mid-Cultural Revolution China. Luckily, English readers now have An Empty Room, a stunning, beautiful collection of fiction that hopefully will lead to more of his work in the future.

In the translator’s afterword for An Empty Room, Toming Jun Liu states that the thirteen stories collected in this collection can be read individually or as a linked story cycle akin to a kind of bildungsroman. And it is quite tempting to do so. Most of the stories are written like long-ago memories being recalled, often melancholy stories of growing up: both the natural growing up of a child, and the unnatural maturation that hits a young adult confronted with tragedy. All the stories are written in the first person too, so though the titles change, the narrator seems constant, even in stories like “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” which follows Alice and takes place in a post-war Britain.

What is particularly interesting about this collection of “stories” is how personal they seem, and how un-story like they can be. “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” is less a short story than a curious little essay, like the kind of internal monologue one has when talking a long walk by themselves (which is actually what the narrator is doing in the piece—talking a stroll through Queens, New York). Translator Jun Liu attributes this as Xin’s affinity with the Chinese prose style sanwen (which is usually just translated as “prose”), a classical Chinese genre of writing that “freely crosses the boundaries of poetry, meditative essay, and fiction.” I personally did not respond as strongly to “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” than to some of the other pieces in this collection, but that, of course, is one of the many road bumps one has to deal with when faced with artistic standards and styles that differ from one’s norm. But what ties almost all the pieces together is their sense of pure storytelling—like the narrator is a close friend, telling you the reader his most cherished personal anecdotes and feelings.

A few decades have passed since then. I still remember the surprise I felt when I first pushed open that screen door. The desolate winter scenery of the mountain, the abandoned church and temple as if the whole of humanity had disappeared, contrasted strikingly with the flowering cherry blossoms that blazed before me—people, life… bluish-white letterhead, golden yellow Kodak boxes—it was like the welcome of spring, or an unexpected encounter with an old friend.

Those fleas that had bitten Liang may have also bitten Mei. A poet once compared the blood of a man and a woman mixed with the living walls of a flea to a marriage temple. What a refined sentiment of tragedy! By coincidence my own blood was mixed in as well, though I was innocent. I never witnessed the marriage of Liang and Mei.

I record this story in memory of my youth. And still I cannot comprehend what it means—which only demonstrates that I haven’t made much progress these past few decades.

The best stories in this collection are among some of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve read in recent memory. The title story is a haunting tale of the narrator finding a temple in the mountains, and trying to unravel the circumstances that lead to a deserted room filled with abandoned love letters. In “The Boy Next Door,” the narrator debates taking a picture with one of his friend’s young neighbors, who is the spitting image of the narrator as a child, when all of his own old pictures have been lost in a “catastrophic fire that would last more than ten years.” And in “Fong Fong No. 4” the narrator describes a lifelong relationship with a sometimes friend, sometimes lover as she reinvents herself over the years.

Besides writing, Mu Xin has made a name for himself as an artist and painter, and in my opinion, it shows. It’s hard to say whether this was an aspect of the original or the translation, but translator Toming Jin Liu has rendered Xin’s prose in this collection as extremely literary. This is certainly not a bad thing per se, but at times it comes off as a little over the top and somewhat pretentious, which can be off-putting. It also seems to me that they were all translated at different times. Although the majority of the stories are honestly translated not just ably but beautifully, for some reason “Quiet Afternoon Tea” stands out as being incredibly awkward and stilted—particularly in the characters’ dialogue (which I find rather ironic, since this is one of the only stories where the characters ostensibly are speaking in English). I find it strange that this one story stands out so strongly amongst the others in the way it is translated, but again, the rest of the collection doesn’t really have any problems like the ones I see in this particular story.

It already seems unfair to devote a whole paragraph to my minor complaints about this collection, because An Empty Room is an excellent collection of fiction by any standards. I was stunned by the quality of the prose and the depths of its emotion, and I sincerely look forward to reading more of Mu Xin’s work in the future.

10 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Contemporary Latin American literature in translation abounds with words of posthumous support from Roberto Bolaño, a blurber par excellence for a generation of writers only now being ushered into the Anglo-American canon, in some cases two decades after first being published.

The mild absurdity of this gold standard, against which the works of many of his contemporaries are set, is hardly lost on his friend Horacio Castellanos Moya, who wrote a 2009 article for Argentina’s La Nacion, “Bolaño Inc.,” that began: “I told myself I wasn’t going to write or say anything more about Roberto Bolaño.”

Bolaño, for his part, wrote, or perhaps said, one of the more salient and lingering points one could make about Castellanos Moya calling him: “The only writer of my generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time.”

The praise, like most pithy promotional quotes, is perhaps an overstatement, but hardly an invalid one, as Castellanos Moya’s excellent new creation, Tyrant Memory makes clear.

Set over the course of one month in 1944, with a concluding chapter taking place twenty nine years later, the novel’s backdrop is the failed military coup against Salvadoran President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a sympathizer of European Fascism and casual mystic whose legacy of human rights abuses is frequently recounted by way of his assertion that it is better to kill a man than to kill an ant. The man will be reincarnated, the ant won’t.

The novel—which, it should be noted, is set during the nascent days of Latin America’s “secret Vietnam”—opens with the diary entries of Haydée, a housewife whose husband Pericles, a political journalist, has just been imprisoned for writing an article criticizing the government of Martinez, or as he is more commonly referred to throughout the novel, the Warlock. It is the eve of an anticipated coup and Haydée is certain that the impending fall of the Warlock will ensure her husband’s safe return. Instead the failed attempt on his life leaves her family in shambles, in large part to due her bumbling eldest son Clemens, who prematurely announces the Warlock’s death on national radio. Needless to say, Clemens is very soon public enemy number one.

The novel is built on two alternating narratives, moving from Haydée’s chatty diary entries to a far more streamlined, and slapstick, account of Clemens going into hiding. This pairing can read as a warped sort of he-said-she-said, whereby no one actually knows what anyone said. Both narratives are so thoroughly built upon hearsay, gossip and speculation that each serves as a highly adulterated, though hardly unfulfilling, accompaniment to the other.

Haydée, who remains in San Salvador after the failed coup, becomes active in organizing protests on behalf of the Committee of the Families of Political Prisoners. Together with several other women, the wives and mothers of prisoners, she participates in a thwarted street protest that ends with gunfire and becomes increasingly active in a clandestine network of citizens planning a general nationwide strike.

Clemens and his cousin Jimmy meanwhile are on the run from the National Guard, who have begun capturing and assassinating anyone complicit in the coup. Together the pair leaves the city shortly after Holy Week. Disguised as a priest and sacristan they make their way to the home of a man named Mono Harris, an American of unspecified profession who has access to airplanes, arms and a few leaked bits of military intelligence.

There are several American characters in Tyrant Memory, not least of which is Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who is known only by name, and his Yankee government and air force are popularly considered the only hope ending the Warlock’s tenure. Their presence in the region is taken for granted as a source of arms and military training and their influence on the Martinez administration, historically an easy proxy in efforts to staunch any semblance of communism in Central America, proves a vital source of life support.

Castellanos Moya is an especially adept writer of dialogue and stream of consciousness narration, and this skill is put to good use in Haydée’s diary entries as she recounts, if not quite the facts, then a certain colloquial spread of information and interpretation, for example rumors of U.S. intervention.

The day began with excellent news. Mingo dropped by the house to find out how Pericles is doing, and he took the opportunity to tell me that the Americans have already firmly turned their back on the general, yesterday the ambassador rejected the government’s proposal for the United States to send officers to reorganize the air forces, which was virtually dismantled after the attempted coup. “Such a rejection means they’ve lost all trust in the government,” Mingo explained to me with great excitement. I went straight to Father with the news. He told me he’d speak with Uncle Charlie to confirm. By noon everybody had heard that “the man” is being left out in the cold.

In the voice and words of Haydée, Castellanos Moya is able to nearly erase his presence as author. The narration is so casual it is almost audible, and revelatory in a manner that seems believably incidental, which, of course it is not. Castellanos Moya’s greatest triumph as a fiction writer is to recreate the daily ambiance of life at the margins of crisis. Though his novels often draw on political circumstance, they are not blindly or overtly concerned with the mechanics of politics.

Tyrant Memory is a novel about impression and interpretation, about the reading of an ambiguous reality, a reality that is distinctly Latin American, if one is inclined to heed Bolaño. Castellanos Moya’s fiction could be described as surreal, but only because reality is always so close but always unreadable: an eye test readers and characters likely fail before being told they need glasses they can’t afford.

This is an impressive affect for an author to replicate, and even more so to replicate more than once. Previous novels published in English by New Directions (Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror) and Canada’s Biblioasis (Dance with Snakes) bear the distinction of narrators with untrustworthy relationships to discernable, factual life. Together the novels cover a territory that range from the lucid and disturbing—the mass murder of an indigenous population in Senselessness—to the truly bizarre—a transient’s sexual relationship with five talking female snakes in Dance with Snakes.

Castellanos Moya’s narrators share a removed position on the periphery of their respective social circumstances, which is pretty apt coming from a writer who has lived much of his adult life in exile. Haydée, as a woman, is excluded from the realm of politics that has consumed her family. Deeply aware of her loss, she is never quite certain of what that emptiness entails, as when a friend asks for news of Clemens.

She wanted to know if I had heard anything she hadn’t. I told her the men in my family and Pericles’s family share the opinion that life-and-death secrets should not be shared with women, so I was totally in the dark. I returned home even more unsettled, and still now, after writing down all the events of the day, anxiety is gnawing away at me inside, as if something important were happening right next to me without my being aware.

Haydée’s diary, for all its impressionistic qualities, is not always engaging. Which may in fact be further proof of Castellanos Moya’s skill as a ventriloquist as he guides us through the subtle development of his character. The entries begin with an intimate jumble of names, relations and social engagements, the details of which can be easily lost, and at perhaps little cost. But by the novel’s end Haydée’s involvement with political action has increased and become more deliberate, more compelling.

The sections devoted to Clemens and Jimmy are told at more of a distance as the dimwitted Clemens provokes the ire of his cousin. Their buffoonery—Clemens is always on the verge of messing everything up as he lets a love of booze and his libido get in the way of every near escape—is at times a welcome respite from the steady, and sometimes overwhelming, hum of Haydée’s note taking.

This mosquito-in-the-ear quality, annoying though it can become, is hardly without foresight or merit, because it ultimately proves a far more insightful impression of a period in El Salvador’s history, than the military men’s antics.

As the husband of one of Haydée’s friends puts it to her, government ministers are “afraid of what people will do to them if the general is toppled, so they send their wives out to spread rumors about them wanting to resign, but once they’re face-to-face with the Warlock they start shaking in their boots.”

The final chapter, which takes place during one day in 1973, is narrated by the husband of Haydée’s best friend, a man named Chelón who has until now been a peripheral but constant presence. It is worth noting that it is only here, in the last fifty pages of the novel, that the reader’s given a physical description of Haydée and told the full details of her life. Neither are especially remarkable, save for the fact that in the absence of these typically requisite details, Haydée has managed to become a fully formed character with her isolated voice alone.

Which makes it all the more disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, when Chelón dismisses Haydée as “a woman from a conservative family who doesn’t fully understand her husband’s decisions . . .” Fair enough, but this slight begs the question—to what extent does that matter when she is the one narrating the fallout?

Castellanos Moya can be a brilliant practitioner of edge of collapse, culling searing narratives of exile and estrangement. Tyrant Memory can be a tiring novel, and it is not always a lucid one, but these attributes may in fact be the greatest of its many achievements. Because inherent to the fog of tyranny is an opaque and exhausting search for information and answers, for the elusive logic behind fickle oppression. Readers are well served with Castellanos Moya as a guide.

9 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just posted an interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya about Tyrant Memory:

Chad W. Post: How does Tyrant Memory compare to the other works of yours that have been translated into English? It seems to revolve around similar political themes.

Horacio Castellanos Moya: Tyrant Memory belongs to a group of novels that deal with members of the Aragon family. And indeed, through the personal and family problems of these characters, you can grasp some intense historical moments in Central America. This is the first of that group of novels that has been translated into English.

One difference between Tyrant Memory and the other three works of mine that have been translated into English is that most of Tyrant Memory doesn’t take place in contemporary El Salvador, but in April and May of 1944, when there was a failed military coup d’etat and then a successful general strike to put and end to a 12-year dictatorship. Politics is all around, of course, but you see it through the eyes of a conservative, catholic, 44-year old lady, and to be more precise, through her diary, where she writes down whatever happens to her since her husband was put in jail for being a journalist who supports the opposition. And this is another difference: the main characters of the other three novels are a little bit out of their minds, deeply affected by violence; in Tyrant Memory, Haydee (the main character) is ruled by common sense and strong moral principals.

CWP: “Ruled by common sense”? This seems like a sharp diversion from the (justifiably) paranoid narrator of Senselessness, or the crazed protagonist killer in Dance with Snakes, or even Laura Rivera from She-Devil. How did you like writing a (somewhat?) sane character?

HCM: It was a challenge. I had to dig deep in myself in order to grasp the mentality and the voices of those conservative, common-sensed ladies that I have met along my life. The challenge was to do it without bias, trying to see the world through their eyes. Once I got the voice, it demanded me a lot of control to keep it. It was exhausting, but I enjoyed it.

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

7 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next focus on Tyrant Memory, here’s a link to the recording of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s appearance here in Rochester.

This took place last year, so it predates Tyrant Memory, but touches on some similar themes and is one of the best RTWCS events we’ve put on. (In my opinion.)

Enjoy, and check in tomorrow for a written interview with Horacio about the new book . . .

13 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s podcast (after the posting of which, the Cardinals pounded the Cubs 9-1), the latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on the forthcoming Enrique Vila-Matas novel, Never Any End to Paris, which New Directions is bringing out later this month in Anne McLean’s wonderful translation.

(BTW, as Anne—and Jeremy—have since pointed out, Vila-Matas did write a book called The Lettered Assassin. Which Anne said isn’t as bad as it sounds in Never Any End to Paris . . .)

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first came across his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. And continuing our baseball theme, it’s worth noting that Jeremy is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan. (BTW, next week’s podcast has a strong baseball element as well . . . mre to come.)

Here’ the opening of Jeremy’s review:

Never Any End to Paris (París no se acaba nunca) is a fictionalized autobiographical work by the great spanish novelist, Enrique Vila-Matas. Only the third of his nearly two dozen books to be translated into english, this one recounts the author’s youthful days in paris during the mid 1970s. It was during this time, while renting an attic room from French writer and director Marguerite Duras, that Vila-Matas set about working on his second novel, La asesina ilustrada (never translated into english, yet appearing in this work as The Lettered Assassin).

In Never Any End to Paris, the narrator (always striving to bear an ever closer resemblance to Ernest Hemingway) recalls his formative days in the French capital over the course of a three-day lecture. Taking as its title a derivation on the name of the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris is set some half a century after Papa himself sauntered around the City of Light. Vila-Matas delves as much into the hardships he (or rather, his fictionalized narrator/lecturer) endured as an undisciplined and unsure writer seeking literary immortality as he does into the milieu of 1970s paris. With an overarching metafictional theme, an abundance of name-dropping, an obvious respect for the art of literature, and the blurring of the line between autobiography and fiction, Vila-Matas’s book brings to mind the works of his close friend and fellow (adopted) countryman, Roberto Bolaño.

Click here to read the full piece.

13 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Never Any End to Paris (París no se acaba nunca) is a fictionalized autobiographical work by the great spanish novelist, Enrique Vila-Matas. Only the third of his nearly two dozen books to be translated into english, this one recounts the author’s youthful days in paris during the mid 1970s. It was during this time, while renting an attic room from French writer and director Marguerite Duras, that Vila-Matas set about working on his second novel, La asesina ilustrada (never translated into english, yet appearing in this work as The Lettered Assassin).

In Never Any End to Paris, the narrator (always striving to bear an ever closer resemblance to Ernest Hemingway) recalls his formative days in the French capital over the course of a three-day lecture. Taking as its title a derivation on the name of the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris is set some half a century after Papa himself sauntered around the City of Light. Vila-Matas delves as much into the hardships he (or rather, his fictionalized narrator/lecturer) endured as an undisciplined and unsure writer seeking literary immortality as he does into the milieu of 1970s paris. With an overarching metafictional theme, an abundance of name-dropping, an obvious respect for the art of literature, and the blurring of the line between autobiography and fiction, Vila-Matas’s book brings to mind the works of his close friend and fellow (adopted) countryman, Roberto Bolaño.

While broad in scope, much of the narrator’s lecture, in addition to recalling the hardships of crafting the novel, the ongoing poverty that accompanied his writing of it, and the wealth of his social engagements with Paris’ creative elite, sets about considering the nature of irony (both in general and as it relates to the telling of his tale).

You’ll see me improvise on occasion. Like right now when, before going on to read my ironic revision of the two years of my youth in paris, I feel compelled to tell you that I do know that irony plays with fire and, while mocking others, sometimes ends up mocking itself. You all know full well what i’m talking about. When you pretend to be in love you run the risk of feeling it, he who parodies without proper precautions ends up a victim just the same . . . That said, I must also warn you that when you hear me say, for example, that there was never any end to paris, I will most likely be saying it ironically. But, anyway, I hope not to overwhelm you with too much irony. The kind that I practice has nothing to do with that which arises from desperation—I was stupidly desperate enough when I was young. I like a kind of irony I call benevolent, compassionate, like what we find, for example, in the best of Cervantes. I don’t like ferocious irony but rather the kind that vacillates between disappointment and hope. okay?

As the lecturer remembers his deliberation about how best to craft a novel (The Lettered Assassin) that will cause its readers to die immediately following their reading of it, the irony of writing what could be a successful book only to be left with no one living to admire it is not lost on him.

Like Vila-Matas’s other works (or, at least those already translated into english), Never Any End to Paris is a smart, creative, and playful work; one that never deigns to take itself too seriously. It as much a quasi-autobiography as it is a celebration of literature, film, paris, irony, and the folly and determination of youth. If only La Asesina ilustrada were already available in translation, then perhaps this book would resound with an even greater clarity than it already does. On its own, however, Never Any End to Paris1 is a fantastic book, one that surely bolsters Enrique Vila-Matas’s reputation as one of the finer spanish-language novelists at work today.

“Among the many fictions possible, an autobiography can also be a fiction.”

1 Translated by Anne McLean, known for her english translations of Julio Cortázar, Evelio Rosero, Javier Cercas, and others.

11 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Brandon Holmquest.

Child of Nature by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi

Language: Albanian
Country: Albania
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 108

Why This Book Should Win:

It begins
when she searches in the darkness
for her likeness, a line of verse awaiting its end rhyme

and it goes on from there, and in just about every poem there’s something that grabs your attention. As in the quote above, where the rhythm of the use of the letter S is so nice in the first two lines, establishing a beat which then opens up to let the long I come in, “likeness” “line” then the same S in “verse” and the long I again in “rhyme.”

This is English-language poetry, of course. I have no Albanian whatsoever and the book is not bilingual, something which I generally regard as a minor crime, though this book may have persuaded me to be a little less hard-line about it. As I was attempting to explain to a bookseller friend of mine not that long ago: I want the original even in languages I don’t know because I want to see what I can see. Are the original much longer or shorter than the translations? Are they shaped differently? Do they rhyme and if so, do the translations? And so on. I’m suspicious, in short.

And often, there’s reason to be. But, sometimes, maybe it doesn’t matter at all, because the English is so good I cease to care if it’s even a translation. I just want more of it, whatever it is, however it came to be made.

Case in point, the poem “Monday in Seven Days,” a longish serial poem of ten parts, which I’m only going to quote once because otherwise the whole thing is going to wind up in what is supposed to be a brief review:

Preparing for winter
isn’t tradition, but instinct. We hurl our spare anxieties
like precious cargo from a shipwreck.

Read that again. If you don’t see on your own how good it is, how truly excellent the choice of the word “hurl” is and how excellently true the observation contained in the lines is, maybe you don’t like poetry as much as you thought. Or maybe you need to read a lot more of it.

Well, there’s a lot more of it in this book. Both the above quotes are pulled from the first quarter of a 100+ page book. At about the halfway point we find:

They are dying one after the other;
shoveling earth on them has become as common
as sprinkling salt on food.

I don’t know what anyone could say to work like this except, “Hell yes.” I could go on dropping quotes all day, but I can see no real percentage in aggressively preaching to a mixed congregation of the choir and the uncovertable.

Lleshanaku’s work is in a vein with some other writers from Eastern Europe I’ve run across in the last few years. She reminds me of Mariana Marin with a less severe case of depression, but really most of the good work I’ve seen from Romania or Poland and elsewhere in the region is in the ball park. Lots of images, vernacular language, a tendency to roll around in the lower reaches of the culture, and a level of comfort on the part of the poet with the saying of things, the making of explicit statements about the nature of something, be it the self, the world, or some interaction between the two.

Point being, there’s something going on over there that we’re only just now getting a chance to see in this country, thanks to books like this and translators like Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi. There are literary cultures less dominated by the inane war between boring middlebrow crap and equally boring academic crap. Child of Nature is a book that comes from such a place. Read it.

30 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the New York Review of Books Blog, you can find Who Would Dare?, an essay from Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming collection Between Parentheses. (Which Jeremy Garber reviewed for us.)

After that, after I stole that book and read it, I went from being a prudent reader to being a voracious reader and from being a book thief to being a book hijacker. I wanted to read everything, which in my innocence was the same as wanting to uncover or trying to uncover the hidden workings of chance that had induced Camus’s character to accept his hideous fate. Despite what might have been predicted, my career as a book hijacker was long and fruitful, but one day I was caught. Luckily, it wasn’t at the Glass Bookstore but at the Cellar Bookstore, which is—or was—across from the Alameda, on Avenida Juárez, and which, as its name indicates, was a big cellar where the latest books from Buenos Aires and Barcelona sat piled in gleaming stacks. My arrest was ignominious. It was as if the bookstore samurais had put a price on my head. They threatened to have me thrown out of the country, to give me a beating in the cellar of the Cellar Bookstore, which to me sounded like a discussion among neo-philosophers about the destruction of destruction, and in the end, after lengthy deliberations, they let me go, though not before confiscating all the books I had on me, among them The Fall, none of which I’d stolen there.

Soon afterwards I left for Chile. If in Mexico I might have bumped into Rulfo and Arreola, in Chile the same was true of Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, but I think the only writer I saw was Rodrigo Lira, walking fast on a night that smelled of tear gas. Then came the coup and after that I spent my time visiting the bookstores of Santiago as a cheap way of staving off boredom and madness. Unlike the Mexican bookstores, the bookstores of Santiago had no clerks and were run by a single person, almost always the owner. There I bought Nicanor Parra’s Obra gruesa [Complete Works] and the Artefactos, and books by Enrique Lihn and Jorge Teillier that I would soon lose and that were essential reading for me; although essential isn’t the word: those books helped me breathe. But breathe isn’t the right word either.

What I remember best about my visits to those bookstores are the eyes of the booksellers, which sometimes looked like the eyes of a hanged man and sometimes were veiled by a kind of film of sleep, which I now know was something else. I don’t remember ever seeing lonelier bookstores. I didn’t steal any books in Santiago. They were cheap and I bought them. At the last bookstore I visited, as I was going through a row of old French novels, the bookseller, a tall, thin man of about forty, suddenly asked whether I thought it was right for an author to recommend his own works to a man who’s been sentenced to death.

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Jeremy Garber on Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming collection of non-fiction pieces entitled Between Parentheses. This is translated by Natasha Wimmer, and will be available from New Directions in late May.

I’m 99.9% there’s no need to explain who Roberto Bolaño is to anyone reading this blog. We’ve been praising, reviewing, and commenting on his books since our very inception. I have to admit that I haven’t had a chance to read some of his latest titles (there are so many!), but I’m really looking forward to this one . . .

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And a GoodReads friend, which is where I first saw his review of this book.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan. (Opening day is only 8 days away and it is snowing in Rochester. Yes.)

Here’s the opening of Jeremy’s review:

That nearly all of Bolaño’s non-fictional and autobiographical writings fit into a single volume is bittersweet. Lucky we are that these works were collected and published (let alone translated by the fabulous Natasha Wimmer), so that neophyte and devotee alike may espy a glimpse of the author beyond his often apocryphal mystique. Unfortunate it remains, however, that these pages make up the sum of what otherwise could have been a much more voluminous collection (had a liver transplant come ready before that fateful 2003 summer).

Between Parentheses, edited by Bolaño’s friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, is divided into six mostly distinct parts. The third and largest of these, from which the book takes its name, is comprised of weekly columns bolaño wrote for Las Últimas Noticias, a Chilean newspaper. These writings concern themselves almost entirely with forgotten books, neglected and/or underappreciated authors, and the writerly lifestyle. The five other parts feature short pieces, essays (some left unfinished), speeches, and brief vignettes dealing mostly with literature, place, and the personal. Also present is a reprinting of the last interview he gave, to the mexican edition of Playboy, shortly before his death.

Click “here“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=3143 to read the full piece.

23 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

That nearly all of Bolaño’s non-fictional and autobiographical writings fit into a single volume is bittersweet. Lucky we are that these works were collected and published (let alone translated by the fabulous Natasha Wimmer), so that neophyte and devotee alike may espy a glimpse of the author beyond his often apocryphal mystique. Unfortunate it remains, however, that these pages make up the sum of what otherwise could have been a much more voluminous collection (had a liver transplant come ready before that fateful 2003 summer).

Between Parentheses, edited by Bolaño’s friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, is divided into six mostly distinct parts. The third and largest of these, from which the book takes its name, is comprised of weekly columns bolaño wrote for Las Últimas Noticias, a Chilean newspaper. These writings concern themselves almost entirely with forgotten books, neglected and/or underappreciated authors, and the writerly lifestyle. The five other parts feature short pieces, essays (some left unfinished), speeches, and brief vignettes dealing mostly with literature, place, and the personal. Also present is a reprinting of the last interview he gave, to the mexican edition of Playboy, shortly before his death.

Between Parentheses, above all, demonstrates Bolaño’s love of books, seemingly more so as a reader of them than as their writer. He was known to have read widely, and this work offers his opinions (mostly favorable, yet sometimes acerbically critical) on a wide array of books, poets, and authors well-known and obscure. As from some of his other titles, one could cull quite the impressive reading list (spanning continents and centuries) from amongst its pages. Omnipresent is Bolaño’s trademark prose style, as his non-fiction reads with the same unique voice that brought so many ardent fans to his fiction. Bolaño seldom strays into the realm of the political, but his few forays are terse and powerful. Amidst his wide knowledge of all things bibliophilic is a singular sense of humor, one that is familiar to readers of both his novels and short stories.

While Bolaño presumably never intended these writings to stand in lieu of a more cohesive autobiographical work (which, given the sentiments contained within the book, is not something he was ever likely to have penned in any proper way), it is nonetheless all we as readers are left with to make sense of him as an individual and lover of great fiction. It seems the late Chilean writer was more than content to let his books stand upon their own merits, as he seemed to have a general disregard for awards, critics, and the like. Between Parentheses is an indispensable collection for those who count bolaño as a remarkable and important literary figure (one, too, perhaps even more essential for his naysayers, detractors, and other assorted maligners).

Behind this crowd, however, hides the one true patron. If you have patience enough to search, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what you’re looking for. And when you find it, you’ll probably be disappointed. It isn’t the devil. It isn’t the state. It isn’t a magical child. It’s the void.

11 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of my favorite writers from the past few years has to be Enrique Vila-Matas, whose Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady are absolutely fantastic. Very excited that Vila-Matas wrote an intro for our forthcoming publication of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, and also very excited to read his new book, Never Any End to Paris, which is forthcoming from New Directions, and was reviewed by Scott Esposito (today is a day of almost all Esposito post) in The National:

Never Any End to Paris (which takes its name from Hemingway’s famous memoir, A Moveable Feast), is a curious anti-memoir of the time he spent living with Marguerite Duras as a young writer in the French capital. The book, which Vila-Matas pitches with characteristic absurdist aplomb as a three-day lecture, gets off to a proper start with an anecdote about a Hemingway lookalike contest Vila-Matas claims to have entered. (I doubt he ever did.) It quickly turns farcical, as Vila-Matas looks nothing at all like Hemingway: “I should say that I made a ridiculous fool of myself . . . I was disqualified; worst of all, they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered my false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’”.

This self-effacing beginning is a spot-on way for Vila-Matas to start his retelling of how his youthful pretensions to become a second Hemingway quickly ran off the rails. Befitting a writer who would stake his name to the quicksands of the derivative, the young man we find in this book is one who is constantly trying to copy others. He attempts to mimic Hemingway’s effortless bohemianism, he adopts the thick glasses and harsh demeanour of the Parisian literati (themselves poseurs), and he tries to fit in with one of the avant-garde movements. From Duras (whose elevated French he never quite understands) he receives a 12-point list of qualities he must work into his writing, which he follows with a naive ardour. He even steals the plot and format of the literary work he creates in Paris from Unamuno and Nabokov. [. . .]

It is true that the actual Vila-Matas did journey to Paris, where he lived with Duras and wrote a literary mystery titled La asesina ilustrada, about a book that could kill its reader. And yet I’m quite sure the author has never given a three-day lecture on his time in Paris, nor grown a beard (to the great chagrin of his wife) in an attempt to look like Hemingway. The heteronym of Vila-Matas in the book even claims that La asesina ilustrada is his first work, but the Vila-Matas whose book I’m reviewing wrote Mujer en el espejo contemplando el paisaje years before La asesina.

It’s not enough to say that what Vila-Matas does is fictional autobiography; it’s more akin to something he attributes to Raymond Roussel, whom he writes told “stories that emerged from the prose itself.” Vila-Matas tells stories that emerge from the past. In this “ironic revision” of the author’s youth, the paradox that holds this book tight as a boa constrictor is that the Vila-Matas in Never Any End to Paris is the real-world Vila-Matas precisely because he isn’t. This works in a way analogous to a story he claims to have heard Borges tell one night in a bookstore in Paris. Relating the words of his father, Borges tells the audience that the past does not exist because all we have of it is a chain of memories: “Each time I remember something, I am not really remembering it, but rather am remembering the last time I remembered it . . . So in reality I have absolutely no memories or images of my childhood, of my youth.”

18 February 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 Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell

Language: French
Country: Morroco
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 118

Why This Book Should Win: Book that pleasantly surprised me the most from the longlist; Robyn Creswell won a PEN Translation Fund Award for this; New Directions; I think this is the first Moroccan book I’ve ever read.

I wrote today’s post.

I’m not a huge proponent of the “you should read translated literature to understand other cultures” argument. People don’t like medicine, and although this isn’t quite that, it still smells a bit funny, you know?

Besides, not all works of international literature give the reader great insight into other cultures. Sure, you can sometimes see how a character’s mind works, how the cultural context influences a particular character’s decisions, actions, and beliefs, but generally, people seem to read translations for the same reason they read any work of literature, which includes a lot of factors (style, complexity, plot, characterization, beauty) other than “to better understand another part of the world.”

Then again, occasionally there is a book that’s not just beautiful and intriguing, well-written and compelling, but does give you a special insight into a different culture. Enter The Clash of Images.

Kilito’s book is about the shift from the “old Arabic world of texts and oral traditions” to the new “modern era of the image, the comic book, photo IDs, and the cinema.” By taking this moment in time as its base, and crafting beautiful short pieces around this theme, Kilito provides a special perspective on what it was like growing up in this culture—a perspective that actually can provide foreign readers with subtle shades of meaning and understanding. Witness these bits from “The Image of the Prophet”:

I had never seen any images properly speaking, except my own in the mirror. On the walls of our house there were no photographs, no reproductions of any sort. The walls were white, cold, and smooth, with no more than on Quranic verse in calligraphy: “The All-Merciful is seated firmly upon the throne.” An ambiguous verse and one that—despite the ingenuity of exegetes bent on removing all traces of anthropomorphism—_presents an image_ (Arab theologians needed several centuries to quell the tendency to lend divinity a human form).

It was only once I learned to read that I was actually able to decipher images.

There were a number of these, images with a certain prestige, sold not far from the great mosque. Each told a story, or else the climactic moment of a story, with a religious subject. [. . .]

These were considered edifying images that exalted the faith and exemplary figures of the past, though at the cost of violating the ban on figural representation. One limit was respected, however: the prophet of Islam was never pictured. The prophet was a story, a word in the mouth, not a face. And yet many claimed to have seen him in their dreams (with what features?).

This is a short book, one that’s quick to read, but which sketches out a number of lasting images, lines, stories. In particular, I’d recommend the “Revolt in the Msid,” “A Glass of Milk,” “Don Quixote’s Niece,” and “Cinedays” sections—all of which are brilliant and prove why this book should win the BTBA.

17 February 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.

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: New Directions/Christine Burgin
Pages: 160

Why This Book Should Win: Most beautifully designed book on the longlist; beyond being an interesting text, it has a fascinating backstory; Walser has been in the running for several years with The Assistant and The Tanners, but has yet to win; Susan Bernofsky (who has multiple titles on the longlist) is amazing and deserves to win.

Today, one of our BTBA judges looks at Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

This is not a book to simply be read. It is a collection of secrets, devised by the author, only to be initially dismissed as gibberish, sorted by a caretaker sometime later, taken in by an amateur who thought otherwise, transcribed into German by a team of two over a decade, then finally, expertly translated into English and re-ordered and edited in book form.

The stories and fragments are for the most part without titles, rendered in a defunct miniature script, never meant to meet the reader’s eyes. They rely upon a portrait before each translation begins, the first sentence sometimes dictating a makeshift title.

With Walser’s writing, there is a silent step back, a gathering of thoughts before each move is made, so as to disarm the unknown future. There is no pretense, no absolutes and little residue. Not much to grab onto in the form of a sure-footed narrative here, no plot-driven whirlwind tales or any reliance upon full-blown characters.

The rhythms of language and syntax devise paths of their own device. An image of a conversation that’s taking place forces your gaze upon a singular object. The entirety of a description ultimately pays tribute to the subject of the story. Walser’s words can leave you directionless. They carry you along, adrift in his language, unsure of both the author’s intention and your path upon reading his words.

I remember someone at New Directions telling me about the existence of the Microscripts while the English translation was still in the works. I had built up images in my head accordingly, filed them away, and waited for the true object to be revealed sometime later. Then I was given a sample facsimile of one of “texts” at a book fair. I was intrigued and puzzled, as one would be without the aid of a proper translation. I regarded the image simply as an objet d’art, putting the oversized loose sheet on the bookshelf and waited for an answer.

This volume of well-ordered scraps is anything but. The transparent design echoes the ordering of a puzzling archive, allowing the reader to flitter between image, original text and translation freely. An afterword by Walter Benjamin gives credence to his contemporary and provides needed context.

Ultimately, the book functions as an unintended collaborative artwork made by many, celebrating the work of an unrivalled master of the minuscule and perhaps, unintentionally functioning as a guide of how to unlock secrets slowly over time.

16 February 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 Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 160


A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated by Alyson Waters

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 224

Why Cossery Should Win: One of the best discoveries of 2010; Cossery would’ve loved the Egyptian revolution; Cossery’s belief in idleness is awesome; Cossery’s belief in hedonism is awesome; both books are hilarious; he has 2-in-25 odds, which is twice as good as any other longlisted author

Today, Bill Marx of World Books and The Arts Fuse takes a look at both books by Albert Cossery that made the longlist.

Led by young people dreaming of freedom from authoritarian control, energized by plots and counterplots placed on Facebook and Twitter, the inspiring revolution in Egypt fits the resurrectionist fantasies of author Albert Cossery (1913-2008), though he would have preferred the liberating results be attained with less sacrifice and energy. His languid fiction treats subversion as a romp, a nervy comic game played against repression and routine. Given his delight in turning government puppets into clowns, Cossery would have reveled in how quickly Hosni Mubarak became a superannuated figure of farce.

Cossery left Egypt as a young man for Paris, where he hung out with Albert Camus and other French intellectuals while leading a life of hedonism (he estimated he had slept with over 2,000 women). His fiction financed his bohemian lifestyle and promulgated his relaxed anarchistic perspective—he was no lover of democracy but a libertine, an ironic satirist in the manner of Oscar Wilde who thought men salvageable as long as they didn’t bore. (Objects of desire, fear, and sentiment, women are irredeemable, at least in these two books.) The Jokers sums up the attributes of Cossery’s ideal male: “That he gives me a wonderful sense of plentitude, even when caught up in life’s trivalities. The breath of joy he conveys. That’s how you recognize the richness of a man’s love.” Think of a guy who exudes perpetual delight, especially when contemplating nihlistic destruction: the cocky panache of Cossery’s buddy-buddy vision of the world.

Both of the entertaining Cossery novels on the BTBA long list are masculine love stories in which young men who set out to undercut their clueless oppressors in Middle Eastern cities. For me, A Splendid Conspiracy, published in French in 1974, is the stronger of the two, perhaps because Cossery seems to be paying serious attention to his multi-layered faux-noirish tale of murder, political intrigue, and sexual perversity. The Jokers, which dates from 1963, deals with the same theme—a plucky, ultimately futile takedown of offical power—but provides sketchier, less exhilerating black comedy, though it has a nicely absurd payoff.

Also, given current concerns with terrorism, A Splendid Conspiracy presents an especially nervy parody of “revolutionary” violence. A police inspector in a small Egyptian town suspects a team of “radicals” are kidnapping and/or killing some of its most notable citizens. Of course, Cossery’s gang of sluggards, who mock everything but leisure and sex, are suspected to be the culprits. In one striking passage the ringleader of the laidback crew expresses sympathy for those dedicated to the decombustion of the status quo: “The tinest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.” What price the joy of deconstruction? Cossery never asks.

7 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

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.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is from Katy Derbyshire, translator from German and curator of Love German Books. And the book she loves is Visitation.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 150

Why It Should Win: Susan Bernofsky; in a sense, the main character is a house; Susan Bernofsky; the translation of the title (Heimsuchung).

Visitation, quite plainly, should win the BTBA because it’s a babe of a book, written by a thinking reader’s babe of an author and put into English by thinking reader’s babe of a translator. I’m allowed to say that; I’m a woman.

That may not be enough for you—although lord knows it should be, because it’s not just that men get much more review coverage, it also just happens to be more often men who win these literary and translation prizes, so my facetious argument is actually striking a blow for feminism. But in the interest of fairness, I shall provide a few more details.

Jenny Erpenbeck is an opera director who writes stunning novels. You might want to read that sentence twice because it’s so awesome. She once pretended to be 17 and went back to high school to research a book. Her mother was a highly respected translator from Arabic. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous.

Susan Bernofsky is a translator, scholar, writer and blogger. She teaches translation and creative writing and has written a biography of Robert Walser, who she also happens to translate. She’s co-curating the Festival Neues Literatur in NYC as we speak. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous. I was totally intimidated at first but then realized she’s not only one of the most impressive translator babes ever (and believe me, there’s a lot of tough competition on that front), she’s also actually really nice.

Just a quick recap here: we have two women both utterly devoted to and excellent at what they do. If that’s not worth a prize I don’t know what is. But you may be one of those people who thinks it’s books and not people that deserve prizes. In that case, you’ll want to know something about the book these two über-babes have been generous enough to give us, I suppose.

It’s a structure you may be familiar with: the house as the element uniting a series of narratives, as in Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Elif Shafak’s Flea Palace, and Nicole Krauss’s latest. Only Erpenbeck takes a very thorough chronological approach, going right back to the formation of the land itself, the previous owners of the plot, the house’s architect, and so on to its demolition some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because the house is not far outside of Berlin, and so a witness to all that twentieth-century German history.

What I particularly adore about the novel is that it doesn’t focus solely on the Nazi era. But that’s a personal thing; I can only assume everyone else in the English-speaking world is utterly fascinated by Nazis, judging by the number of books dealing with them, either written in English or translated. So don’t worry, there are some Nazis and some murdered Jews and some collaborators in amongst all the other beautifully sketched characters. And to get to Susan Bernofsky’s excellent work, each section is written in a different style, gorgeously rendered in English as in German.

In other words, this is a novel with brains, brawn and beauty—it’s basically a babe of a book. If the BTBA were Miss World, Visitation would win the swimsuit competition and then turn down the main prize because she had to work on actually forging world peace once she’d completed her Ph.D.

3 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today we look at the lastest from Cesar Aira—an annual BTBA author—in a piece written by an extrapolation of my 15-year-old self.

The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 90

Why It Should Win: Cesar Aira is due (last year’s Ghosts was a finalist); Katherine Silver is due (two years ago, her translation of Senselessness was a finalist); Spanish language is due (in the past three years, nine Spanish titles have been finalists, but none have won); mad scientists are “in”

When I was a kid, I loved comic books. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, whatever. I still have two huge boxes of comics that represent every dime (and then some) that I earned during my summer jobs, working on golf courses and being pelted by balls from uppity country club members who were better at investments and hostile takeovers than actually golfing. And every time, while digging a sandtrap, a ball narrowly missed me, I wished I had superhero powers so that I could eradicate whatever polo-wearing d-bag just “forgot” to yell “FORE!” I wanted to go all Psylocke on them. Or web them to a tree. Something juvenile, and something more akin to the motivations of the supervillains found in comics than the upstanding, moral superheroes. Cause the bad guys are always more fun.

In addition to the cult of collecting (also loved baseball cards, but that’s a different post), one of the things I loved about comics was the nature of the storytelling. Obviously, none of the comics I read (save maybe The Invisibles) was anywhere near literary, but there was something intriguing and compelling about how the serial storytelling had to work . . . Every reader already knew the comic formula, especially in the 1980s—bad guy tries to take over world, good guy nearly loses, good guy prevails—and it was the goal of the comic writer to vary this in a way that made you want to pick up the next month’s issue. (It was almost Oulipian in its constraints.) There had to be cliffhangers, the planting of seeds of future storylines, etc., etc.

But to be honest—in a maybe dark sort of self-punishing way—what I kept reading for was the idea that one time the bad guy would win. The mad scientist maybe wouldn’t take over the world, but would off at least one minor superhero. If nothing was at stake, if nothing terrible could happen to a character in this imaginary world, than everything I had wasted money and hours on meant exactly nothing.

Which is why The Literary Conference is so cool: it’s about a literary translator turned mad scientist

So, once upon a time . . . an Argentinean scientist conducted experiments in the cloning of cells, organs, and limbs, and achieved the ability to reproduce, at will, whole individuals in indefinite quantities. First, he worked with insects, then higher animals, and finally human beings. His success did not vary, though as he approached human beings the nature of the clones subtly changes; they became non-similar clones. He overcame his disappointment with this variation by telling himself that in the final analysis the perception of similarity is quite subjective and always questionable. He had no doubt, however, that his clones were genuine, legions of the Ones whose numbers he could multiply as often as he wished.

At this point he reached an impasse and found himself unable to proceed toward his final goal, which was nothing less than world domination. In this respect he was the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books. He was incapable of setting a more modest goal for himself; at his level, it simply wouldn’t have been worth his while.

And how is the narrator/translator/mad scientist going to take over the world? By cloning Carlos Fuentes.

So yeah, on one level The Literary Conference is an absurd book, one that ends with huge blue worms descending from the mountains, and our mad scientist turned hero being put in a position to possibly save the day and get the girl.

But to draw out this out a bit more . . . The way Aira builds to this point is so mesmerizing that it’s as if he does have superpowers. His narrator’s tone and way of explaining his goals and ideas (the bit about a person’s uniqueness being constructed from the specific books one has read is brilliant, as is the section on “cerebral hyperactivity”) is spectacular, and Katie did a marvelous job rendering these rhythms and peculiar word choices in English.

In constructing this strange world of clones and world domination, there are hints of something larger, of this all being a crafty metaphor. The main character is named Cesar, who is also a writer of strange, metaphorical works. The idea of clones, of cloning Fuentes, of Aira’s insane literary production (he’s written more than 50 books), of writing unique books, of taking over the world . . . Reading this, I felt there was something more going beneath the comic book surface. That there was a sort of secret plot at the center of this book on secret plots. Or maybe that’s my comic book loving 15-year-old self getting the better of me.

31 January 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.

All posts in this series can be found here. And I’ll kick things off with a post I wrote about Javier Marias’s book.

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias, translated by Esther Allen

Language: Spanish
Country: Spain
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 57

Why It Should Win: Elvis! and a hysterical description of Fun in Acapulco; stars a translator and the plot hinges on translator’s interpretation; it’s Javier Marias, it’s Esther Allen, it’s New Directions

Although it’s only 57-pages long, this novella is packed with awesomeness. The basic story: some years back, a young Spaniard is hired to go to Mexico with Elvis and help him with his Spanish pronunciation. (Elvis wants to speak his ‘c’s like a true Spaniard—not like a Mexican.) While there, a confrontation takes place with locals in a bar—a confrontation that, by linguistic necessity, puts out narrator in the line of fire (literally and figuratively).

Marias is absolutely one of the best, and this book dazzles from its opening line:

No one knows what it’s like to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score.

It might be due to the brevity of the text, but there’s a way in which every scene, every description, every event seems absolutely locked together, with each paragraph having to follow from the one previous. That’s not usually how I think of Marias, with his long-winding sentences (see above), constant contemplation, and the way his prose mulls. But Bad Nature really is the very definition of tight.

The fact that this book is about a translator—and the process of translation—might give it an edge with the panelists. This isn’t the first time Marias has written about a translator or used an act of translation as a plot point (see A Heart So White). Regardless, the moment in which the translator chooses his words in conveying Elvis’s insult to the ruffians is thick with tension, and such a perfect example of how translation is interpretation . . .

All that’s great, Marias is great, Esther’s translation is great, but the real reason this should win? These two passages. First, a description of the film:

I don’t really know what the plot of the film was supposed to be, and not because it was too complicated; on the contrary, it’s hard to follow a plot when there is no story line and no style to substitute for one or distract you; even later, after seeing the film—before the premiere there was a private screening—I can’t tell you what its excuse for a plot was. All I know is that Elvis Presley, the tortured former trapeze artist, as I said—but he’s only tortured sometimes, he also spends a lot of time going swimming, perfectly at ease, and uninhibitedly romancing women—wanders around Acapulco, I don’t remember why, let’s say he’s trying to shake off his dark past or he’s on the run from the FBI, perhaps some thought the fratricide was deliberate (I’m not at all clear on that and I could be mixing up my movies, thirty-three years have gone by). As is logical and necessary, Elvis sings and dances in various places: a cantina, a hotel, a terrace facing the daunting cliff. From time to time he stares, with envy and some kind of complex, at the swimmers—or rather, divers—who plunge into the pool with tremendous smugness from a diving board of only average height.

And from this description of the ridiculousness of Elvis:

Since he was a hard and serious and even enthusiastic worker, he couldn’t see how his roles looked from the outside or make fun of them. I imagine it was in the same disciplined and pliant frame of mind that he allowed himself to grow drooping sideburns in the seventies and agreed to appear on stage tricked out like a circus side show, wearing suits bedecked with copious sequins and fringes, bell bottoms slit up the side, belts as wide as a novice whore’s, high-heeled goblin boots, and a short cape—a cape—that made him look more like Super Rat than whatever he was probably trying for, Superman, I would imagine.

Super Rat FTW!

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and available from New Directions.

Will is one of our “contributing editors” (which are sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts) and a former Open Letter intern. He’s reviewed a number of titles for us, is very interested in Japanese literature, and is a translation student here at the University of Rochester.

Roberto Bolano is someone you’ve all heard of. New Directions has and is publishing approximately 1,000 of his books, four of which arrived in the mail today: Antwerp, Monsieur Pain, The Return, and The Insufferable Gaucho. I’m a huge fan, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Will . . .

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

“Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.”

Click here to read the full review.

11 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.

The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:

Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.

And what may be even more interesting is how the two essays in the back of the collection are written in a way that feels almost more like “fiction” than the actual short stories do. Too bad the actual subject matter at hand is not nearly as interesting as the way Bolaño writes it, once you sift through his bag of literary tricks.

Bolaño is certainly a talented writer, but he writes with the cynicism of someone who maybe knows a bit too much for his own good, so at times he comes off as kind of a smart-ass. I don’t think the reader would find the eponymous “insufferable gaucho” quite so insufferable otherwise, and Bolaño’s namedropping of his favorite (and least favorite) writers can grow tedious, if you forget that, like any writer, this is someone who really loves literature. On the bright side, award-winning Chris Andrews’ translation is practically seamless, and save for one in text translation of some song lyrics, the reader could go through the whole book without realizing they were reading a translation.

The Insufferable Gaucho is certainly an interesting set of pieces that show that Bolaño is capable of many different feats with his writing. When it works, it really works, and the stories “Jim,” “Police Rat,” and “Alvarro Rousselot’s Journey” show how good Bolaño can be. But overall I found the collection to be a mixed bag, and for someone who hasn’t already contracted Bolaño-mania, it just quite wasn’t enough for me to join his growing throngs of fans.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky and published earlier this year by New Directions.

Phillip Witte was an intern for Open Letter way back in the day, and also had a summer internship at New Directions. He’s a great reader, was a fantastic intern, and is one of those young people who gives me hope about the future of literary publishing. (Honestly.) Last I heard he was working at The Strand, although he may be looking for another publishing gig . . .

Anyway, Susan Bernofsky is awesome, and we’ve sang her praises any number of times on this blog. She’s told me repetitively about just how good this particular book is, and I feel like a horrible reader for not having found time to read it yet. (But soon! I can see this making the BTBA longlist, which is the perfect opportunity to set aside a few days to enjoy this.)

This is Jenny Erpenbeck’s third book to be published in translation by New Directions, the others being The Book of Words and The Old Child & Other Stories. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard great things about her books—in particular Visitation.

Anyway, on to Phil’s review:

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

Click here to read the full piece.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

The only person who remains quietly in the background throughout the book is the gardener, constantly performing the same rituals of planting, pruning, beekeeping and harvesting. Erpenbeck’s scrupulous repetition in describing these actions, laced with minute changes, enacts the cycle of seasons and years in which everything stays more or less the same even as everything decays and is renewed. Erpenbeck’s prose in Susan Bernofsky’s translation tends toward luxurious run-on sentences that nevertheless must end. The gardener does eventually disappear, but the villagers continue to tell fantastic stories about him.

The novel is divided into short chapters, each devoted to a brief moment of these lives and the lives of their neighbors and children. In shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition, minute descriptions of daily routines are tightly interwoven with rhapsodic fits of reminiscence. Fragments of speech unassigned to any particular speaker echo like ghosts in an empty house. The immediate concerns of these people are as various as their backgrounds; what unites them is the place, the garden and the house, which most of them badly want but can’t quite allow themselves to call home.

The word itself, home—where and what it is, how we manage to find it, keep it, lose it, and find it again—seems ultimately what is most at issue for Erpenbeck. Unable to hold on to her childhood home in actuality, Erpenbeck sought to do so in writing; far from answering the problem, Visitation seems to complicate it in the most beautiful fashion. The word visitation may indicate Bernofksy’s take on the problem, taking into account the original title Heimsuchung, which also translates as “home searching.”

Perhaps in this search we really only make nothing more than visits to various places. Yet we keep looking, maybe because the idea, the word home itself, keeps drawing us on. In one early chapter, “The Cloth Manufacturer,” Erpenbeck lets home resound among achingly familiar scenes of quiet family life in the countryside:

Arthur says to him, Ludwig, his son: let me take a turn, and he picks up the spade himself and tosses the earth back into the hole all around the root ball. Ludwig places his arm around Anna, his future wife, and the two of them look at the broad, glittering surface of the lake. Home. Why does everyone like looking at the water so much, Doris asks. I don’t know, Anna replies. Doris says, maybe because there’s so much empty sky above a lake, because everyone likes to see nothing sometimes. You can let go now, Arthur says to Doris.

This is the Jewish family, the original owners, forced to flee by the threat of the Nazis. In a later chapter, “The Writer,” a communist family has returned from an exile imposed by the same threat. The chapter is sprinkled with a similar recurring phrase:

This doctor wasn’t even born yet when she returned to Germany. He has traveled to Japan with one or the other government delegation, to Egypt, to Cuba. I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. Down in the kitchen the cook is making the plates clatter, the gardener is sitting on the threshold to his room, on the meadow her granddaughter and the boy next door are spraying each other with water. . . .

The recurring phrase, “I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e”, represents a fragment typed out at the tail end of the writer’s current work-in-progress. Living in the house, enjoying the garden, sitting to dinner with her whole family: these are not home; she hasn’t gotten there, wherever it is, yet; she is still “going.” And the fact that the repeated phrase is spelled out with dashes reminds us that it is typed: it unifies the act of heimsuchung with the act of writing, as the author set out to do. Unlike the sentence, it does not necessarily have an end—which is just as well, because Visitation is well worth reading again.

23 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all of you within driving distances of Rochester, you really should come out tonight for our first Reading the World Conversation Series Event of the season. Barbara Epler (publisher of New Directions) will be talking with Susan Bernofsky (translator of a number of German authors) about Robert Walser’s Microscripts, which recently came out from ND in Susan’s stellar (as always, as expected) translation.

Here’s a bit of background about Walser and the event:

Robert Walser was one of the most interesting writers of the twentieth century. His exacting, hilarious prose (see Jakob von Gunten, The Tanners, Selected Stores, etc.) has influenced a host of writers and acquired a large following.

Walser’s life story is also very intriguing, especially the fact that he was institutionalized for the last third of his life, during which time he wrote a series of “microscripts”—short stories written on scraps of paper in a script about a millimeter high. After extensive research these pieces have finally been deciphered and have recently been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky—Walser’s primary translator and one of the most prestigious German translators working today—and published by the admirable New Directions. New Directions’ publisher, Barbara Epler, will be here to talk with Susan Bernofsky about Walser, the literary passion he inspires, and his microscripts.

There’s even going to be a PowerPoint with images of the actual microscripts . . . Knowing Barbara and Susan, this is going to be an amazing and fascinating evening . . . (Followed by good food, wine, and salsa, but that’s a different sort of post.) And for those of you who can’t make it, we’ll be recording this and posting it online as soon as possible. (The event that is, not the salsa dancing. That’s an embarrassment that need not be saved for posterity’s sake.)

15 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Brooklyn Book Festival took place this past Saturday, and as always, I wish I could’ve been there. I was able to attend a few years back, and was really impressed by how many people were out browsing the stands, attending panels and readings, and generally getting excited about books. And from what I’ve heard the festival has grown every year since.

As covered in The Mantle, this year’s BKBF included a “Reading the World” panel featuring some of my favorite publishers and translators including Karen Emmerich, Susan Bernofsky, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr. Here’s a clip from Shaun Randol’s write-up:

Great stuff all around, an excellently curated panel. Every single one of the works presented is worth purchasing (skip the library and give these people some money!). (Note to participants: correct me if you see a mistake! There were no Cliffs Notes for what we were listening to on stage.) Karen Emmerich (representing Team Archipelago) read the poetry and prose from the Greek writer Miltos Sachtouris, skipping us across Aegean waters from Greek isles to ancient Greece. And then . . . Ms. Emmerich read an outstanding piece of poetry on the life of plant, by the poet/author Helenē Vakalo. The Mantle audience pleads for an answer—what is this poem and where can we find it? This vegetative poetic genius!?!? Ms. Emmerich, if you are reading this, please put the information in the comments section below!

Next up, Susan Bernofksy (Team New Directions), reading from German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. I have nothing written down in my notebook here. This is what happens when the story is too absorbing—you neglect your reporter duties. A complete blank because my eyes were closed and I just listened to the pitter-patter of her voice as she conveyed one of a dozen stories taking place in a single house over generations in what must be an exceptionally intricate novel penned by Erpenbeck. The house is/was real (it belonged to Erpenbeck’s family), so how much of the story is as well? Ahhhh . . . German intrigue . . .

Sounds like a fun panel—one of many that took place. Ah well. Next year . . . There’s always next year . . .

Aside from bringing some attention to this fair/panel, it’s worth spending some time looking around The Mantle. Embarrassed to say that this is the first time I’ve come across the site, which is dedicated to providing “a forum for the next generation of leaders to be heard—a space for opinions that are different from those found in traditional, established outlets.” It’s an interesting publication, with a very international focus, and an intriguing book review section. Definitely worth checking out.

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:

A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.

Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:

Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.

Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.

And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:

KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?

SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.

KD: What are you working on right now?

I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.

Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.

18 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just so happened that a copy of Walser’s Microscripts arrived in the mail this morning from the wonderful people at New Directions, so I thought I’d follow up on the last post with a bit more info about the first event in the fall RTWCS.

On September 23rd, Barbara Epler of New Directions will talk with Susan Bernofsky (translator of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, and others) about Walser, his “microscripts,” and the art and practice of translation.

I suspect that most everyone reading this site is familiar with Robert Walser (we’ve written about his work enough times, and here’s an interesting piece by J. M. Coetzee from the New York Review Books), but in case not, he was one of the most important and interesting writers of the twentieth century, author of The Tanners, The Assistant, Jakob von Gunten, The Robber, and tons of short stories. He also worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor’s assistant—all jobs that greatly informed his writing. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Walser was hospitalized in 1933 and was institutionalized for the last twenty-three years of his life, during which time he wrote tons of “microscripts,” which were considered “undecipherable” until rather recently.

Here’s some info from Susan Bernofsky’s introduction:

Robert Walser, one of high modernism’s quirkiest, most mischievous storytellers, wrote many of his manuscripts in a shrunken-down form that remains enigmatic even a century later. These narrow strips of paper covered with tiny, antlike markings ranging from one to two millimeters, came to light only after their author’s death in 1956. At first his literary executor, Carl Seelig, assumed that Walser had been writing secret code, a corollary of the schizophrenia with which he’d been diagnosed in 1929. Unsure what to make of these tiny texts, Seelig published a handful of them as enlarged facsimiles int he magazine Du with a note describing them as “undecipherable,” and then put them away for safekeeping.

Naturally, these turned out to be decipherable, and Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte spent a decade analyzing the texts, using a technique more like guesswork than reading:

It isn’t possible to just sit down and read a microscript. Morlang and Echte report that one doesn’t so much read these tiny words as guess at what they might psay and then verify the accuracy of the hypothesis.

Part of this is based on the size of the script, but there’s also the interesting nature of the script itself:

The writing that looked like secret code in Carl Seelig’s eyes turned out to be a radically miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by a Latinate form similar to that used in English. Kurrent is medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles. It is a form of script better suited to compression than modern handwriting, though its graphic simplicity—an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash—means that shrinking it down results in a dramatic loss of detail and comprehensibility.

All of this is fascinating, making me anxious to dive into the writings themselves. And to speed up time so that it can suddenly be September 23rd . . . Barbara and Susan are both absolutely amazing, and it will be a real treat to see them on stage together.

17 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

I can’t access the full review (yet), but according to Stephen Mitchelmore at This Space the new issue of the TLS has an interesting review by Nick Caistor on Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesca. Here’s an interesting bit that Stephen pulled out:

Vila-Matas insists that there is a “moral contract” between writer and reader, and that the reader should be active, showing a “capacity for intelligent emotion, a wish to understand the other person, and to get closer to a language that is different from that of our daily tyrannies”. He goes further, declaring that: “the same skills needed to write are also needed to read. Writers can fail readers, but the reverse is also true, and readers fail writers when all they look for in them is a confirmation that the world is exactly how they see it”. In spite of all the playfulness therefore, the game of literature is the most serious and urgent there is.

Vila-Matas is a personal favorite—his Montano’s Malady is pure genius—so I’m excited to find out more about Dublinesca. And I did hear from Declan at New Directions that they signed this book on, so it will be available in English at some point in the future. In the meantime, ND is bringing out Vila-Matas’s Paris Never Ends sometime next spring (?). Can’t wait . . .

16 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just received a copy of The Jokers last week, and as soon as I finish it I’m going to write my own appreciation of just how awesome Albert Cossery is. I can’t believe I never heard of this guy before this summer . . . His books are incredibly funny, smart, well-crafted—but more on that in a later post.

In the meantime, here’s David Ulin’s wonderful review of both Cossery books that came out this year: The Jokers (translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by NYRB) and A Splendid Conspiracy (translated by Alyson Waters, published by New Directions):

The Jokers is one of two Cossery novels newly translated into English; the other is A Splendid Conspiracy, from 1975. If these books are any indication, someone should get the rest of his writing — there are seven other titles — back into print. The Jokers is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed. “Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise?” asks a young man named Heykal, the driving force behind the plan. Later, Cossery elaborates on the peculiar challenges of this quiet insurrection: “The governor was the sort of public figure who stumps even the cleverest caricaturists. What could they do that nature hadn’t already accomplished? Short and potbellied, with stubby legs, he had a squashed nose and huge bug eyes ready to pop out of their sockets. . . . But in fact the governor was only trying to show that in this city of chronic sleepers he was awake.”

Here, we see the delicate tension that defines Cossery’s vision, located somewhere between ironic derision and a very real sense of sedition. For all that Heykal and his friends Karim, Khaled Omar and Urfy (a teacher popular among his students because he “inculcated them with a single principle: to know that everything grown-ups told them was false and that they should ignore it”) claim to stand outside the ordinary push-and-pull of society, they clearly have a purpose and a point of view. What sets them apart is the knowledge that even if they succeed in overthrowing the governor, it won’t make any difference; they cannot derail “the eternal fraud.” Why do it, then? As a lark, in part, a remedy for boredom, but also as an existential statement, a protest at once pointed and absurd.

Were this all there is to The Jokers, it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery’s genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes.

Cossery’s definitely worth checking out . . . I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find both of these books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist for this year . . . (Again, I’m not on the judging committee, so this is pure speculation.)

10 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As many other bloggers have mentioned over the past week, Google recently came out with an announcement that there are 129, 864, 880 books in the world. This post explains how Google got to that number (very interesting), defines what a “book” is (”‘tome,’ an idealized bound volume”), and references a silly April Fools joke (adding a turkey probe to a library’s catalog).

Another big announcement from recent weeks was Jeff Bezos’s statement that Amazon.com is now selling more ebooks than hardcovers prompting (once again) the endless string of “OMG print books are almost dead!” articles. This one by Malcolm Jones fits the “I’ll miss physical books” category of reactionary pieces, but still implies that the days of hardcovers and paperbacks are numbered.

Which, taken to the extreme, brings up an interesting idea—what are we going to do with these millions of books (and billions of copies) once we fully convert to an e-world?

One idea comes from Matej Kren’s art installation “Scanner”—currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna, and which looks a little something like this:

This week’s Consumed by Rob Walker (whose Buying In is an all-time favorite book of mine) is all about books as art:

For starters, books have served as useful raw material for conversion into an impressive variety of artworks. Jacqueline Rush Lee has created a body of work that turns books into organic-looking shapes — sometimes pages are rolled, sometimes they seem to grow from their open covers, sometimes they’re squashed into wholly different forms. Su Blackwell’s intricate cutouts rise from old books like impossible pop-ups; Stephen Doyle has made tanks and staircases from paper pages, resting on open books that serve as pedestals. Guy Laramée and Brian Dettmer have each created compelling three-dimensional objects by carving or otherwise restructuring books; Robert The has cut books into gun shapes. Thomas Allen has made vivid images of figures rising from lurid pulp paperbacks. Photographers like Paul Octavious, Victor Shrager and Abelardo Morell, among others, have made pictures that linger over book details, or rearrange book groups, in memorable ways.

(Although honestly, the coolest, almost meta, bit of this article is the final paragraph about Busted Typewriter, which hollows out books—including Buying In—to serve as Kindle cases, giving you the feel of a “real” book to go with the convenience of e.)

All of this brings to mind Julio Cortazar’s short story “End of the World of the End,” which opens with a sort of vision of the electronic, self-publishing world:

As the scribes will persist, the few readers there are in the world are going to have to change their roles and become scribes themselves. More and more countries will be made up of scribes, and more and more factories will be necessary to manufacture paper and ink, the scribes by day and the machines by night to print the scribes’ work. First the libraries will overflow the houses, then the municipalities decide (now we’re really into in) to sacrifice their children’s playgrounds to enlarge the libraries. Then the theaters will go, then the maternity homes, slaughterhouses, bars, hospitals. The poor use the books like bricks, they stick them together with cement and build walls of books and live in cabins of books.

This isn’t enough to stem the flow of books, so a new idea is proposed:

The President of the Republic gets on the telephone with the presidents of the republics, and intelligently proposes to cast the leftover books into the sea, which act is accomplished simultaneously on every coast in the world. Thus the Siberian scribes see their works cast into a sea of ice and the Indonesian scribes etc. This allows the scribes to step up their production as the earth again has space to store their books. It does not occur to them that the sea has a bottom and that at the bottom of the sea the printed matter is beginning to pile up, first in the form of a sticky pulp, then in the form of a solid pulp, and finally a tough though viscous flooring which rises several feet a day and will finally reach the surface. Then much of the water invades many of the lands and there is a new distribution of continents and oceans, and presidents of various republics are replaced by lakes and peninsulas, presidents of other republics see immense territories newly open to their ambitions, etc.

As time goes on, this landmass of pulp becomes home to nightclubs and casinos, causing the scribes to store all their books on land once again. The ink and paper companies go bankrupt, the scribes write on “slabs of wood or rock or on stone tiles, etc.”

On the earth the race of scribes lives precariously, doomed to extinction, and at sea there are the islands and casinos, or rather the ex-transatlantic liners, where the presidents of the republics have fled to refuge and where they hold enormous parties and exchange wireless messages from island to island, president to president, and captain to captain.

And there you go.

14 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

I Curse the River of Time“: by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Norway, Graywolf Press)

Along with all the Bolano and Larsson books, this is probably one of the most anticipated works in translation coming out this year. Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was an incredible success for Graywolf, and hopefully I Curse the River of Time will be as well. This is already available in the UK, and the reviews seem to be pretty positive, including this one in the Guardian, in which Rachel Cusk calls the book “a work of blackest tragicomedy, a novel as cold and scintillating and desolate as the northern winter landscapes that are its setting.” It centers around late-30-something Arvid Jansen, whose life appears to be tottering, so he goes to visit his mother in Denmark. This paragraph makes the book sound really interesting to me:

On the ferry he is paranoid and unstable; he punches a man he believes to be menacing him, only to discover later that this man is a childhood friend who was trying to greet him. He falls off a jetty and soaks the only clothes he has brought with him. He takes it into his head to chop down a tree his mother has always complained of in front of the cottage, thinking it will please her. He hangs around her, needy and clinging, when it is apparent that she wants to be left alone; and worse still, apparent that she is disappointed in him, in the failure of his marriage and in his underachievement generally.

Stella by Siegfried Lenz, translated from the Germany by Anthea Bell (Germany, Other Press)

This is just the first of several interesting translations that Other Press will be bringing out over the next few months. Stella is a student-teacher love story, although according to the jacket copy, “there is nothing salacious about their relationship, nor is it just a case of a crush between teacher and student.” The novel starts at the end, at Stella’s funeral, and the praise for Lenz’s “Heminway-esque” style is intriguing.

The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Chile, New Directions)

Another Bolano! Another collection of short stories! I can’t find the ND page for this book, but here’s a link to what I assume is the title story that appeared in the New Yorker a few years back. Opening sentence is so Bolano: “In the opinion of those who knew him well, Héctor Pereda had two outstanding virtues: he was a caring and affectionate father and an irreproachable lawyer with a record of honesty, in a time and place that were hardly conducive to such rectitude.”

A Novel Bookstore“: by Laurence Cosse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

I’ll just let Europa describe this book-related mystery:

Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free reign. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? by Mela Hartwig, translated from the German by Kerri Pierce (Austria, Dalkey Archive)

And from the possible wacky to the quite probably depressing . . . I remember hearing about this book on an editorial trip to Vienna I took back when I was working at Dalkey Archive. Sounded like a pretty intense novel, and if I remember right (I probably don’t) the Austrian publisher compared Hartwig to Virginia Woolf. The novel centers around Aloisia Schmidt, a secretary whose life is utterly boring and mundane. From Dalkey: “In one final, guilt-ridden, masturbatory, self-obsessed confession, Aloisia indulges her masochistic tendencies to the fullest, putting her entire life on trial, and trying, through telling her story (a story, she assures us, that’s ‘so laughably mundane’ it’s really no story at all), to transform an ordinary life into something extraordinary.”

Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat (France, Melville House)

OK, I’m sort of cheating here—Valtat wrote this book in English—but whatever. Valtat sounds really interesting to me, so I’m breaking my own rule. This is Valtat’s second book to come out this year. Just a few weeks ago, FSG published 03, a novel about a man’s memories of a retarded girl he used to see every day and started obsessing over. What’s particularly cool about this book is the way it came into English (from Conversational Reading):

Former FSG editor Lorin Stein discovered this writer when he was browsing in a bookshop in Paris. The author of three previous books, Valtat had never before been translated into English. 03 was first published by Gallimard in 2005 and was not on submission to anyone in the U.S. or the U.K., so it took a chance encounter in a bookshop to bring this novel to an American readership.

That’s the kind of coincidental story that makes publishing awesome.

Aurorarama is set in 1908 in the Arctic city of “New Venice”:

But as the city prepares for spring, it feels more like qaartsiluni—“the time when something is about to explode in the dark.” Local “poletics” are wracked by tensions with the Eskimos circling the city, with suffragette riots led by an underground music star, with drug round-ups by the secret police force known as the Gentlemen of the Night. An ominous black airship hovers over the city, and the Gentlemen are hunting for the author of a radical pamphlet calling for revolt.

All sounds very wild, and very cool.

Klausen by Andreas Maier, translated from the German by Kenneth Northcott (Germany, Open Letter)

And now for the obligatory Open Letter title . . . Maier’s a very interesting writer, somewhere between Saramago and Bernhard. Klausen is a very well-constructed novel bringing together a collection of muddled, often contradictory voices to explain what happened (or didn’t happen) in a small German town. Reading this is quite an experience: the narrative flows from character to character, from event to discussion what really happened at that event, all building in a masterful way to a gripping conclusion involving a bomb. Or a shooting. Or something involving Italians. This may sound daunting or confusing, but it’s really not. It’s a great ride that hysterically portrays the sometimes insane workings of a close-knit community where everyone has an opinion (the right one!) about everything.

13 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations.

July 2010

The Return by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Chile, New Directions)

Let’s start in the Southern Cone with the latest book from international superstar Roberto Bolano. Fans of his can’t get enough, and this collection of stories—his second to appear in English—should be fantastic. The earlier story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, is one of my favorite of all his ND books. And this collections sounds just as stunningly strange and wonderful: “Consider the title piece: a young party animal collapses in a Parisian disco and dies on the dance floor; just as his soul is departing his body, it realizes strange doings are afoot — and what follows defies the imagination (except Bolaño’s own).”

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Chile, Open Letter)

Personal favorite from our list. I love Zambra’s style, his directness. This book is about a man who tells his step-daughter a nightly bedtime story about “The Private Lives of Trees.” On this particular night his wife is late . . . and then later . . . and later. And the book ends when either she arrives or he decides she never will. If you want a chance at winning a free copy of this, visit our Facebook page and “like” or comment on the Private Lives of Trees post.

Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore edited by Alvin Pang, translated from Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English by a variety of translators (Singapore, Autumn Hill)

Not surprisingly, not many works of literature from Singapore make their way into this country, which is one reason why this book is so intriguing. This anthology is a collaboration between Autumn Hill Books and the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and features work from thirty-nine contemporary writers. To illustrate the range of pieces in this book, here’s a brief description of a few pieces (from Autumn Hill’s website): “Tan Chee Lay’s meditative ‘Post-Terrorist Phenomena,’ a candid re-examination of the War on Terror, carries the subtle assurance of centuries of literary tradition in ‘san wen,’ a popular Chinese form of creative non-fiction; Malay-Muslim Johar Buang’s verse is recognizably modern, yet draws from the same mystical tradition as Rumi and other Sufi masters; Yeng Puay Ngon’s Ginsbergesque long urban poem, Wena Poon’s magic realist short story and Xi Ni’er’s barbed fictive quips would all find favor in global literary circles today, while remaining grounded in a sense of place.”

Winter Journey by Jaume Cabre, translated from the Catalan by Patricia Lunn (Spain, Swan Isle Press)

A few years back, when I visited Barcelona on an editorial trip—and fell in love with the works of Merce Rodoreda and Quim Monzo, along with Spanish wine, tapas, and the entire Catalan culture—Jaume Cabre’s massive book Les veus del Pamano had recently come out. It sounded pretty interesting, but for a variety of reasons, we couldn’t get it on our list. So I’m really glad that someone else is making some of his work available. Winter Journey is supposedly a collection of short stories, but according to Swan Isle it is “a singularly brilliant and enigmatic narrative, novelistic in its approach, with mysterious connections linking characters, objects, and ideas across time and place. The text takes the form of a Schubertian musical progression in prose, a philosophical mystery moving freely through a labyrinth of centuries and cities, historical and contemporary.”

Tomorrow we’ll look at August . . .

Three Fates Linda Le Mark Polizzotti New Directions

15 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Last week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

“The Literary Conference”:http://www.ndpublishing.com/books/AiraLiteraryConference.html by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (Argentina, New Directions)

Another post, another project to catch up on . . .

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a copy of this book yet, so this is truly a “looking forward to reading this summer” sort of preview post. I have read all of Aira’s other books to make their way into English, generally liking each new title even more than the last. And based on what I’ve heard about The Literary Conference, I have pretty high expectations, especially after Ghosts, which New Directions brought out last year, and which quickly became a cult favorite and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. (To be honest, it was a couple of votes away from winning . . .)

The Literary Conference is the fifth Aira book to make its way into English, and may be the most anticipated by everyone—not just me. The plot synopsis is absolutely wild: a translator who has fallen on hard times solves a puzzle, finds a pirate treasure, and decides to use his new found wealth to take over the world by cloning Carlos Fuentes.

As expected, Michael Orthofer has already reviewed this at the Complete Review, giving it a B+ (solid!) and having this to say:

What’s particularly striking about The Literary Conference is the relatively matter-of-fact tone and straightforward narration. César’s account is precise and conventional, the events he describes often downright mundane. Yet the novella is full of the fantastical, inserting the very unusual (that Fuentes-cloning experiment goes really, really wrong, for one thing) in the very everyday.

The Literary Conference constantly keeps the reader guessing: Aira leads down one path, only to radically upset his premises and change route (or, arguably, to take things to their logical conclusion — though it’s not a readily recognizable and familiar logic . . .), while almost all the while maintaining his straightforward tone.

The Literary Conference is one of those books that truly is unlike anything most readers are likely to have encountered (even if they’ve read a few other works by Aira). César makes a point of emphasizing uniqueness; The Literary Conference certainly stands out among most works of fiction, its mix of convention and peculiarity particularly striking.

Another interesting review — from another member of the 2011 BTBA fiction committee — is this one by Scott Esposito in which he elaborates on one of the key passages in Ghosts to try and articulate Aira’s unique aesthetic:

At the very centre of Ghosts is one of Aira’s customary philosophical digressions, a 10-pager that ranges from architecture to the indigenous rite of gift-giving known as “potlatch” to the space of imagination in dreams. The point of this digression seems to be to examine the thought at the core of the book — how art can be both “made” and “unmade” at once — and at one point Aira laments that with most arts there is an insurmountable gulf between the idea and the artefact. However, Aira points out one important exception: “And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimised, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.”

Without attempting a rigorous reading of Ghosts, it seems fair to say that here Aira is elaborating his own theory of literature, as well as suggesting why he keeps his stories perpetually on the threshold of signification, forever forestalling an actual conclusion. He strives to embody that point in between the made and the unmade — to go back and revise would be to risk pulling his writing from this amorphous phase of creation. Instead he constantly runs forward, leaving behind works still burning with their formative fires.

Aira is one of the most interesting, unique Argentine authors writing today, and all of his books are definitely worth checking out.

22 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

After reading a bunch of glowing reviews for the third volume of Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (including this one from the Independent in which the trilogy is referred to as “one of the most thoughtful and inspiring fictional works of the last decade”) I tentatively decided that I would spend the last few months of 2010 reading all 1,500 pages, so that I could fully experience the hype.

I love Marias’s other books—especially the twinned All Souls and Dark Back of Time, the latter of which actually references Normal, Illinois of all places—and back years ago, like literally years ago, when Volume I of the YFT trilogy came out, I read about half of it on a plane to somewhere and remember greatly enjoying it. Actually, all I really remember is that the sentences were labyrinthine in that Marias way, and that the book was all about reading, about learning how to read, how to interpret. At the time it seemed like vintage Marias: pensive, thoughtful, detailed and methodical to a point of near-overkill. But in contrast to some of his other books, which are often about secrets, human relations, and women’s legs, the mental meanderings of the YTF trilogy are strung onto a spy-thriller plot. It’s like Proust meets Ian Fleming. (Or some other reviewer platitude.)

Anyway, as compelling and mentally exhilarating the idea of reading one of the great twenty-first-century works (so far) might be, I still need a little motivation . . . It’s not like I’m not already inundated with fascinating samples, readings for the Best Translated Book Award 2011, or Open Letter books that need to be proofed. But still . . .

Which is why I’m thrilled that Scott Esposito put together a Your Face Tomorrow Reading Group. Kicking off this week (I believe—more info TK), this should be pretty interesting. Scott does shit right. (Check recent issues of The Quarterly Conversation if you doubt.) And I know he already has a number of great features lined up.

Hopefully we’ll be able to do some cross-posting, etc., etc., between Conversational Reading and Three Percent, and regardless, I’ll definitely keep everyone updated as things progress.

Now, if you’re not up for 1,500 pages of European intellectual spy games (of however you want to categorize this), you might be more interested in Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a very, very short Marias book that just came our from New Directions. I know little about this novel (except that Esther Allen translated it, so it must be awesome), although I do know that ND absolutely nailed the jacket copy: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.” Sold!

26 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

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



Ghosts by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Argentina, New Directions)

During a late night phone conversation last night, I mentioned that one difference between last year’s BTBA for fiction and this year’s was the lack of a “Big Book.” Last year we had Bolano’s 2666, which everyone and their brother knew would be a longlist title. We also had Moya’s Senselessness, a fan favorite that received a lot of buzz all year. But this year . . . ? There are a few big names—Bolano, again, Pamuk, Le Clezio—but there’s no single book that overshadows all the others, that has achieved that elusive goal of being a translated book that everyone seems to be talking about.

But on second thought, I wonder if Ghosts by Cesar Aira might not fit that bill. Not giving away much by saying that this book was high on the list for most (all?) of the fiction judges. And that we’d been referencing it on Google Docs and e-mails for months.

Aira’s got a few things going for him: New Directions has already published two of his other novels—An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and How I Became a Nun—and will be doing more in the future. Anyone who knows Aira’s work (like every single literate person in Argentina) will point to how each of his books employs a different style, almost as if they were written by entirely different writers.

The other constant is the fact that Aira’s books are short. Which hurts in terms of being perceived as having written a “Big Book,” but also helps in the sense that it only takes a few hours to read one of his novels. (Or novellas, depending on your view of that.) For all its intricate plotting and expansive ideas clocks in at a mere 139 (small) pages—just a fraction of News from the Empire or 2666.

Of the three Aira books to make their way into English, this one is by far my personal favorite. It’s just so tight. Not a wasted word. And the opening is incredibly impressive and grand, depicting the setting for the novel (New Year’s Eve at a fancy high-rise that’s still under construction) through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills and to start his mediation on space, happiness, and potentiality:

The owners of the apartments had their own idea of happiness; they imagined it wrapped in a delay, a certain developmental slowness, which was already making them happy. In short, they didn’t believe that things were going to proceed as planned, that is, quickly. They preferred to think of the gentle slope of events; that was how it had been since they paid the deposit and signed the settlement a year earlier. Why should they adopt a different attitude now, just because the year was coming to an end? True, they knew there would be a change, but at the last moment, beyond all the moments in between. It wouldn’t be today, or tomorrow, or any day that could be determined in advance. Like the spectrum of perception, the spectrum of happening is divided by a threshold. That threshold is just where it is, and nowhere else. They were focusing on the year, not the end of the year. Needless to say, they were right, in spite of everything and everyone, even in spite of right and wrong.

As mentioned above, this high-flying, semi-abstract, cursory introduction to the building ends up resting on Patri, a teenager who is going to have to make a critical choice by midnight. Her story—which serves as the core conflict for the book, one that is both incredible compelling and universal—is encapsulated in this mini-story that’s told over dinner:

Patri thought for a moment before speaking: I remember a story by Oscar Wilde, about a princess who was bored in her palace, bored with her parents, the king and queen, bored with the ministers, the generals, the chamberlains, and the jesters, whose jokes she knew by heart. One day a delegation of ghosts appeared to invite her to a party they were giving on New Year’s Eve, and their descriptions of this party, which included the disguises they would wear and the music to be played by the ghost orchestra, were so seductive, and she was so bored, that without a second thought that night she threw herself from the castle’s highest tower, so that she could die and go to the party. The others pondered the moral. So the story doesn’t say what happened at the party? asked Carmen Larrain. No. That’s where it stops.

This is Patri’s dilemma exactly. There are ghosts throughout the construction site, ghosts that are generally playful but, especially according to Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay,” also have a sinister side. And they want Patri to join them at midnight for their party.

But this ghost story isn’t necessarily that simple. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:

An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don’t think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it’s simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a “thought,” reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, of course, but not really from them.

Overall, Aira packs a lot of beauty into the slender book. It’s an impressive achievement, one that deserves even more attention and readers than it received so far. Impressive enough that it’s one of the favorites to make this year’s shortlist . . .

26 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

OK, so the podcast about the literature of Lost is now online in its entirety, and hopefully is of some interest to Lost fans . . . We covered a ton of stuff in here: past books from the show, including The Third Policeman, The Invention of Morel, VALIS; my feeling that the best aesthetic lens through which to approach Lost can be found in The Crying of Lot 49; some info about international literature and Open Letter; and a final bit about Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel). All in all I had a great time talking with Jason and Matt and am now more psyched than ever for the season six premiere . . .

Anyway, the big news that we were able to work in is that Shusaku Endo’s Deep River will appear in the sixth episode this season. Why this book? Well, check the Wikipedia description:

The story traces the journey of four Japanese tourists on a tour to India. Each of these tourists goes to India for different purposes and with different expectations. Even though the tour is interrupted when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by militant Sikhs, each of these tourists finds their own spiritual discovery on the banks of the Ganges River.

One of the tourists is Osamu Isobe. He is a middle-class manager whose wife has died of cancer. On her deathbed she asks him to look for her in a future reincarnation. His search takes him to India, even though he has doubts about reincarnation.

Kiguchi is haunted by war-time horrors in Burma and seeks to have some Buddhist rituals performed in India for the souls of his friends in the Japanese army as well as his enemies. He is also impressed by a foreign Christian volunteer who helped his sick friend deal with the tragic experiences during the war.

Numada has a deep love for animals ever since he was a child in Manchuria. He believes that a pet bird he owns has died in his place. He goes to India to visit the bird sanctuary there.

Mitsuko Naruse, after a failed marriage, realizes that she is a person incapable of love. She goes to India hoping to find the spiritual meaning of life. There her idea of life is challenged by the awaiting Otsu, a former schoolmate she once cruelly seduced and then left. Although he had a promising career as a Catholic priest, Otsu’s own idea of a pantheistic God and his criticism of the European view of God have led to his relegation by the Catholic Church. In his own way to imitate Jesus Christ, he helps carry dead Indians to the local crematoria so that their ashes can be spread to the waters of the Ganges. His efforts ultimately lead to his peril as he is caught in the anti-Sikh uproars in the country. Meanwhile, Mitsuko meets two nuns from the Missionaries of Charity and begins to understand Otsu’s idea of God.

A pilgrimage, spiritual journey, cancer, reincarnation, failed marriages . . . All so very Lost . . .

Also very Lost-like is this little tidbit about Endo that I forgot to mention during the recording:

When he died in 1996, only two novels were chosen to be placed inside his coffin. Deep River was one of them.

So by my estimation, we are only seven days and nine hours away from the start of season six . . .

21 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Chile, New Directions)

Well, 2009 wasn’t nearly the “Year of Bolaño” that 2008 was . . . Last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist included both 2666 and Nazi Literature in the Americas, which sparked various debates about whether Bolaño was overrated, whether his shorter prose was better than his overly ambitious, epically long novels, whether or not he actually needed the attention the award might bring, etc., etc.

In the end, 2666 was one of the three real finalists for the award (along with Senselessness and eventual winner Tranquility) and I think I spent more time explaining why it didn’t win than focusing on the awesomeness of Attila Bartis’s dark, creepy novel.

With three Bolaño books coming out in 2010, who knows what next year’s award might look like, but for now, we only have one Bolaño book to talk about: The Skating Rink. (Although I am going to make this a “Day of Bolaño” by also posting the review of Monsieur Pain that just arrived . . . ) The Skating Rink is an early novel of Bolaño’s, and one that put him on the literary map in part for his use of three narrators to tell the story and the unique way he constructs a detective novel that contains no actual detective . . .

In brief, this is a novel of three men living in the town of Z whose lives are intertwined: Remo Moran, a successful businessman; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department. And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.

There’s also a murder. And some shady political dealings. A skating rink. And a twisted love story.

But similar to Noa Weber, what’s most amazing about this novel are the voices. Each chapter is narrated by one of the three male protagonists, and these monologues read almost like confessions, or responses to some line of questioning—yet as pointed out above, there is no detective in the pages of this mystery. Nevertheless, right from the start, the reader knows something has gone down and that Enric Rosquelles is the main suspect:

Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. My life is orderly and even rather austere. I don’t smoke or drink much; I hardly go out at night. I’m known as a hard worker: if I have to, I can work a sixteen-hour day without flagging. I was awarded my psychology degree at the age of twenty-two, and it would be false modesty not to mention that I was one of the top students in my class. At the moment I’m studying law; in fact, I should have finished the degree already, but I decided to take things easy. I’m in no hurry. To tell you the truth I often think it was a mistake to enroll in law school. Why am I putting myself through this? It’s more and more of a drag as the years go by. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I never give up. Sometimes I’m slow and sometimes I’m quick—part tortoise, part Achilles—but I never give up. It has to be admitted, however, that it’s not easy to work and study at the same time, and as I was saying, my job is generally intense and demanding. Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.

Granted, The Skating Rink has nowhere near the scope and ambition of 2666 or The Savage Detectives. It’s not game-changing in terms of the possibilities of literature. It’s not even Bolaño’s best short work. Still, it’s a captivating early novel, one that sets forth some typical Bolaño themes in a fun, genre-tweaking way that highlights his novelistic skills. Definitely worth reading, and who knows, maybe the tightness of this book will impress the fiction judges more than the explosive looseness of 2666 . . .

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



The Tanners by Robert Walser. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

Thanks to New York Review Books, University of Nebraska Press, and New Directions, Robert Walser is experiencing something of a renaissance. Jakob von Gunten was one of the first books NYRB brought out, and a couple years later they did a volume of selected stories. Around the same time, UNP published The Robber. And in addition to The Tanners, ND recently brought out Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Assistant, and next year will be doing some of his “Microscripts.” (If you’re not familiar with the “microscripts,” it’s a pretty fascinating subject for another post, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of one of his almost indecipherable microscript pages.)

What’s especially nice is the amount of attention these publications have been getting. One of the best PEN World Voices events I ever attended was a special tribute to Robert Walser featuring Michael Kruger, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Susan Bernofsky. It was almost magical—Kruger gave a great introduction, and each of the other panelists read an excerpt from Walser’s oeuvre. (Recordings of all of these should be on the PEN America website, but for some reason, most of the links are broken . . . The only one currently available is Jeffrey Eugenides’s reading of “Trousers.”)

In terms of print coverage, although it’s almost a decade old now, J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Robert Walser article in the New York Review of Books is fantastic, and more recently, Benjamin Kunkel wrote a great piece for the _New Yorker.

Kunkel’s piece gets right at the heart of what makes Walser’s books so damn good and so damn addicting—the idiosyncratic voice of his characters:

The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.

In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically.

A perfect example of this can be found in Monica Carter’s review of The Tanners when she quotes Simon’s farewell speech from the bookstore that he briefly worked at:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

A semi-autobiographical novel, Simon is Walser’s stand-in: a young man without a clear purpose drifting from job to meaningless job, pontificating, convincing bosses to hire him without any personal recommendations (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose would it serve!”), before moving on after being disappointed by one thing or another.

Even though Simon might be the most charming in all of his oddness, all of the characters in The Tanners are pretty wonderful. They tend to speak in paragraphs that allow their strange paths of thought to twist, turn, and entertain.

One of the wonderful things about Walser’s writing (I believe Sebald mentions this in his introduction, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now), is how it sort of erases itself as it goes. How as a reader, every page, every paragraph is charming and charged with meaning, only to sort of dissolve, become more foggy, less specific, the minute you put the book down.

Echoing the Kunkel quote from above, there’s no one else who writes like Walser did. He’s a special case, and this novel is one of the most well-crafted and immediately enjoyable books on the fiction longlist.

I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:

“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a think were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

One of the best unexpected results of putting together the translation databases is being able to put together an awesome reading list of forthcoming translations. (Or, to put it in a slightly more negative light: to know about way more interesting books than I’ll ever have time to read.)

The spring is a perfect example. As the reading for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award is winding down, I’m getting jacked about 2011 . . . Just look at this list of titles coming out in January – March 2010. (Don’t even get me started on April – June . . . my “to read” bookshelf is already overflowing.) Links below go to the Idlewild Books catalog, since Idlewild is our Indie Store of the Month. (And by “month” I mean the rest of December and all of January.)

January

Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (excerpt)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
published by Archipelago Books

Archipelago books tend to deliver, and this sounds really intriguing. Thomas Mann gave this a killer blurb: “easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years.” It’s the story of a scientist-hero who has killed his wife and is deported to a remote island where he “seeks redemption in science.” It was written around the same time as The Man without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers and has that same sort of middle-European, ambitious vibe.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
published by Dalkey Archive Press

I’m a huge Boon fan, especially of Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and it’s great to see more of his work making it into English. This was a first novel, an account of World War II told through “overheard conversations, newspaper articles, manifestos, and other sights and noises of daily life.” Boon had an amazing gift for language, for capturing the dirty reality and comic charms of daily life and creating something bigger and more meaningful. It’ll be very interesting to see what he created out of these materials.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
published by New Directions

This next year promises to be yet another big year for Roberto Bolano with three books of his coming out from New Directions: Monseiur Pain, Antwerp and The Return. This novel—which we’ll be reviewing in the very near future—is about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, a mesmerist, two mysterious gentlemen, a bribe, and guilt. With Bolano you can rest assured that it’s at least worth the price of admission.

February

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
published by Grove

Dubravka’s one of my all-time favorite writers (which is one of the reasons why her collection of essays, Nobody’s Home, was the first book published by Open Letter) and this looks like an awesome follow-up to her last work of fiction, The Ministry of Pain. This novel is part of the “Myths” series, retelling the story of Baba Yaga who, according to Russian myth, “is a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” We posted about this book a while back and included a bit of the opening chapter. This may well be the book that I’m most excited about for 2010 . . .

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
published by New Directions

I know next to nothing about this book aside from the fact that a) it’s published by New Directions (definite plus), b) it’s by Javier Marias (another plus), and c) it’s translated by Esther Allen (three pluses and I’m sold?). That and this description, which is the very definition of “selling copy”: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz
published by Open Letter

Yeah, OK, I’m including one of our own books on this list—but seriously, I waiting almost five years to be able to read this and truly believe it’s one of the great books of the twentieth century. It opens with over fifty prologues! It’s in the meta-vein of At Swim-Two-Birds! It’s written by Borges’s mentor! It’s subtitled “The First Good Novel”! (And was a companion to Macedonio’s Adriana Buenos Aires (The Last Bad Novel)!) What more do you need to know?

March

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
published by Graywolf Press

Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son came out from Graywolf earlier this year and got some good attention. Obabakoak is a collection of stories centered around the village of Obaba, and sounds really intriguing: “A tinge of darkness mingles with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of fables, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga’s distinctive and tenderly ironic voice.” Here’s a link to an audio file from PEN America of Atxaga reading Three Pieces about the Basque Language.

Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
published by Grove

Kudos to Grove for having such a great winter/spring line-up—and for publishing two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2010. We already have a review of this novel on hand, but with the pub date so far in the future, we’re going to hold onto it for at least a few weeks before posting. The review is very positive, and this story of a man traveling from Japan to Berlin to try to understand what drove his brother-in-law to commit suicide sounds incredibly intriguing.

Wolf among Wolves by Hans Fallada
translated from the German by Philip Owens
published by Melville House

This comes on the heels of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which did very well for Melville House. Another massive book (736 pages!), it sounds great: “a sprawling saga of the collapse of a culture—its economy and government—and the common man’s struggle to survive it all. Set in Weimar Germany soon after Germany’s catastrophic loss of World War I, the story follows a young gambler who loses all in Berlin, then flees the chaotic city, where worthless money and shortages are causing pandemonium. Once in the countryside, however, he finds a defeated German army that has deamped there to foment insurrection. Somehow, amidst it all, he finds romance—it’s The Year of Living Dangerously in a European setting.”

That’s it for now . . . More recommendations to come in a few months.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece on Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror that I wrote. Katherine Silver translated this, and New Directions published it a couple months ago.

Senselessness was one of my favorite books from last year, and She-Devil is up there on my Best of 2009 list . . .

Here’s the opening of the review:

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call.

Click here for the full review.

24 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

At last year’s Best Translated Book Award ceremony, there were three novels cited as the best of the best: eventual winner Attila Bartis’s Tranquility, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. All the judges agreed that Moya’s book was really tight and amazing. Perfectly crafted, gripping, harrowing, and on occasion, quite funny.

What was especially promising was the long list of his other titles just sitting there, waiting to be translated. If only they’re 75% as good as Senselessness . . .

This fall two of his earlier books finally made their way into English: Dance with Snakes (translated by Lee Paula Springer and published by Biblioasis), a fantastical, political novel involving a man who uses a bunch of snakes to go on a killing spree (we’ll review this separately in the near future), and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Neither of these books is as ambitious or as powerful as Senselessness, but both prove—in totally different ways—that Moya is one of the great talents working today.

The She-Devil in the Mirror consists of nine one-sided conversations featuring Laura Rivera (who does all the talking), BFF of the recently deceased Olga Maria, who was gunned down in her own living room. Most of the narrative revolves around Olga Maria—the ongoing investigation into her murder, all of her various love affairs, and Laura’s increasingly complex explanation of who the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s death might be. These speculations are mixed in with Laura’s self-obsessed musings, silly observations, and numerous complaints about the police investigation in an intriguing, run-together way reminiscent of a teenager on a late-night phone call:

[. . .] Olga Maria was always so discreet, so modest, so reserved, never had those fits of hysteria, she defended her home and was totally devoted to her husband and children, that’s why her death makes me so angry, my dear, what’s the point, so many bastards they don’t bother killing and a woman like that—a paragon, so hard-working, look how she started that boutique from scratch, all with her own hard work. Those two coming in now, they’re the two policemen who came to Dona Olga’s to harass us, the one with the dark jacket is the one who says his name is Deputy Chief Handal: riffraff, my dear, they’ve got no respect for other people’s pain, what’s wrong with these people, how dare they come to a decent person’s wake, their heads must be full of rot—imagine: they wanted me to reveal all of Olga Maria’s secrets, as if any of her friends or acquaintances would have planned her murder . . .

Laura’s speech flits from subject to subject like that for 190 pages, unaware of its various contradictions, such as following the statement that Olga Maria was “totally devoted to her husband and children” with heaps of sordid details about her many affairs. Although initially Laura’s character is a bit incredulous, she starts to hit a rhythm and takes shape as a less-and-less reliable narrator even as she starts to postulate very dangerous ideas about the identity of the mastermind behind Olga Maria’s murder.

And that’s the simple tension that makes this book function: our only source of information to unravel the murder plot is a narrator who is either a flibbertygibbet or a true mental case. But if she’s right, the implications behind Olga Maria’s murder transform it from a daily tragedy into something with more shadowy political motives.

Overall, this book reads beautifully (all props to Katherine Silver for her wonderful translation), and is quite captivating. Looks like Moya’s reputation will continue to grow for years to come.

7 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the New Directions blog there’s a fascinating interview with translator Susan Bernofsky (one of my favorite translators) on Robert Walser (one of my favorite authors). Number of interesting comments on the process and art of translation, but this bit about Walser’s Microscripts was what caught my eye:

GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?

SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).

After running a review of The Tanners last week, I started reading the book myself and instantly re-fell in love with Walser’s style and quirky sense of humor. I can’t repeat enough how everyone should read this book, and as an attempt to sway any doubters out there, here’s the opening paragraph in all its hilarious glory:

One morning a young, boyish man walked into a bookshop and asked to be introduced to the proprietor. His request was granted. The bookseller, an old man of quite venerable appearance, gave a sharp glance at the one standing rather shyly before him and instructed him to speak. “I want to become a bookseller,” said the youthful novice, “I yearn to become one, and I don’t know what might prevent me from carrying out my intentions. I’ve always imagined the trade in books must be an enchanting activity, and I cannot understand why I should still be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest—and yet not so foolishly honest as I might appear. I am capable of lowering prices when a poor devil of a student is standing before me, and of elevating them as a favor to those wealthy individuals who, as I can’t help noticing, sometimes don’t know what to do with all their money. Although I’m still young, I believe myself in possession of a certain knowledge of human nature—besides which, I love people, of every variety, so I would never employ my insight into their characters in the service of swindling—and I am equally determined never to harm your esteemed business through any exaggerated solicitousness toward certain underfinanced poor devils. In a word: My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality on the scales of salesmanship, a rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love: I shall practice a most lovely moderation, please be assured of this in advance—”

And it just keeps getting better, as Simon dismisses the request for personal references (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose could it serve?”) and quits just a few pages later (“During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly . . .”).

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Robert Walser’s The Tanners, which was recently released by New Directions in Susan Bernofsky’s translation. (This is overly personal, but this review is a confluence of four of my favorite people, publishers, and authors. Monica + Susan + Walser + New Directions = Good Shit.)

Monica’s been reviewing for us for a while. She’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee, and she runs Salonica World Lit while also working at Skylight Books.

As is mentioned on the jacket copy of The Tanners, this is one of the year’s most anticipated books (at least among the literati, or everyone not currently reading Dan Brown) and was chosen by Time Out New York as its Top Summer Fiction Pick of 2009 and by the Village Voice as “a contender for Funniest Book of the Year.”

Based on the opening of Monica’s review, it sounds like both statements are absolutely true:

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

Click here for the full review.

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.

And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:

No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.

Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.

He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it.2

22 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Two Words — the excellent blog of the Center for the Art of Translation — posted an interesting, brief conversation with Natasha Wimmer about her forthcoming Bolano translations. I think any and all Bolano fans will be especially intrigued by this bit:

Natasha Wimmer: I’ve read The Third Reich (and in fact, it looks like I’ll be translating it, though I have yet to sign on the dotted line). It’s about an elaborate board game called The Third Reich (Bolaño was a great fan of war games), it takes place on the Costa Brava, and it pits a German tourist against an enigmatic South American who rents paddle boats on the beach. I loved it.

But this is just one of her Bolano projects. She’s also translating Antwerp (technically his first novel, although it wasn’t published until 2002) and Entre parentesis (a collection of nonfiction) for New Directions.

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past few years, New Directions has put together what is arguably the best collection of contemporary Latin American literature available from any single publisher. Sure, there’s the heaps of Bolano titles. But there’s also Cesar Aira. And Horacio Castellanos Moya. There’s Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House. Ernesto Cardenal’s poetry collection. The two Luis Fernando Verissimo books. Felisberto Hernández and Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam. The reissues of the Borges titles. One could do a lot worse than spend a few months with the Latin American section of the ND catalog . . .

And now comes Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, the translation of which—as Dan mentions in his review—won Anne McLean her second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year.

Dan Vitale—reviewer, writer, and editor—has a lot of great things to say about The Armies and its translation in his review:

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

Click here for the full review.

8 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)

New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”

Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.

In the course of his wanderings in search of Otilia, Ismael faces one trauma after another. He learns that Eusebio’s twelve-year-old son Eusebito has also been taken away, as has the girl, also twelve, that Eusebio and his wife Geraldina took in after her parents were killed in the church explosion. He encounters wayward gunfire from a frustrated army captain and survives a grenade attack on his home. He discovers that several of his friends have been murdered, including two who were victims of a massacre at a hospital. He receives letters from his married daughter Maria in Popayán, who implores her parents to leave San José before things get worse—letters he is helpless to answer in part because he cannot bring himself to tell Maria that Otilia is missing. He commiserates with Chepe, the café owner whose pregnant wife is kidnapped, and stands his ground to await Otilia’s increasingly unlikely return, even as many of the other surviving townspeople begin an exodus out of San José.

The glimpses of the lives of the people of San José that Rosero weaves into Ismael’s narrative are as varied and engaging as those in Gabriel García Márquez’s In Evil Hour, another enduring work about political violence in a small Colombian town. For example, in a startling flash-forward, we are with Geraldina three months after the hospital massacre, when Eusebito is suddenly returned to her:

Now all her preoccupation is focused entirely on her son so reserved he almost seems dead; in vain she attempts to wake him from the nightmare he is in: she hovers around him every minute of the day, hanging on his every gesture, and falls back desperately on a kind of game of deluded songs, in which she uselessly tries to convince herself that he participates, he, a child who seems mummified, stuck in an urn.

The breathlessness of Ismael’s long sentences in this section add even more weight to the heaviness of Geraldina’s grief, as if on top of everything else she were being starved for air.

By the end of the novel, as Ismael loses track of the days and weeks, Geraldina becomes virtually his only connection to normal life. The book’s final sections are stunning: unnerving in their suspense, tragic in their clear-eyed depiction of the apparently infinite capacity of some human beings—legitimated only by the authority of brute force—to perform acts of supreme degradation upon others.

During it all, as he suffers one indignity after another, and despite the repeated pummeling his spirit takes with each new piece of ghastly news he hears, Ismael remains our diligent witness to unspeakable acts, his instinct for self-preservation not so much a heroic aspect of the human spirit as the stubborn persistence of a wounded animal. Near the end of the book Ismael rouses himself, with one last burst of strength, to continue on, in a passage so beautiful it deserves to be quoted in full:

From the trees a cluster of birds takes flight, after a series of bursts of gunfire, still distant. Far away, another group of stragglers, men and women, rush along the road: it looks as if they are fleeing on tiptoe, trying not to make any noise, with voluntary, disproportionate stealth. Some of the women point to me, terrified, as if commenting to each other on the presence of a ghost. I have sat down on a flat, white rock, under a fragrant magnolia tree; I do not remember this rock either, or this magnolia, when did they appear? With every reason I do not know this street, these corners, things, I have lost my memory, just as if I were sinking and I began to walk one by one down steps which lead to the most unknown, this town, I shall stay alone, I suppose, but in some way I shall make this town my home, and I shall stroll through you, town, until Otilia comes for me.

I shall eat what they have left in their kitchens, I shall sleep in all their beds, I shall recognize their stories by their vestiges, guessing at their lives from the clothes they left behind, my time shall be another time, I shall amuse myself, I am not blind, I shall cure my knee, I shall walk up to the high plateau as a stroll and then return, my cats will continue to feed me, if weeping is all that is left, let it be out of happiness; am I going to cry? No, just burst out laughing with all the unpredictable laughter I have been holding back all this time, and I am going to laugh because I have just seen my daughter, beside me, you have sat down on this rock, I tell her, I hope you understand all the horror that I am, inside, ‘or all the love’—this last I say out loud, laughing—I hope you are drawing near in sympathy with me, that you forgive the only one guilty of the disappearance of your mother, because I left her on her own.

As rendered by Anne McLean, these lines—and many others like them in this remarkable, haunting novel—surely warrant the accolade this translation received in Britain. Now that The Armies has been published here, U.S. readers can readily experience its immense power for themselves.

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece that I wrote about Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink.

Bolano is a personal favorite, and I think this latest translation is very charming:

I’m as guilty as anyone for helping hype Roberto Bolaño’s two big books—“big” both in terms of reputation and size—that FSG released over the past two years. I loved both The Savage Detectives and 2666. I loved the heft, the ambition, the overreaching, and the risks he took.

But amid the Bolaño frenzy of the past couple years, his shorter books were somewhat overlooked. Which is a shame—in many ways, Bolaño is much better with these 150-200 page books than with his sprawling works.

Over the past six years, New Directions has done an amazing job of making all of these available to English readers. They brought out By Night in Chile to great reviews back in 2003. Then Distant Star came out shortly thereafter followed by Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Amulet, and a collection of his poetry entitled Romantic Dogs. The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews, who has done all of the works of fiction New Directions has published) releases this month, and there are even more Bolaño books scheduled for the next couple years. (According to Wyatt Mason’s review in the New York Times and wikipedia there are two novels and two story collections coming out next year, and three more books in 2011.)

When The Skating Rink came out in 1993, it really put Bolaño on the literary map. And for good reason. Playing with the detective novel genre, Bolaño uses three narrators to tell a story of love, corruption, and murder in the Spanish town of Z.

Love + Corruption + Murder—what more could you ask for in a book? The full review can be found here.

3 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m as guilty as anyone for helping hype Roberto Bolaño’s two big books—“big” both in terms of reputation and size—that FSG released over the past two years. I loved both The Savage Detectives and 2666. I loved the heft, the ambition, the overreaching, and the risks he took.

But amid the Bolaño frenzy of the past couple years, his shorter books were somewhat overlooked. Which is a shame—in many ways, Bolaño is much better with these 150-200 page books than with his sprawling works.

Over the past six years, New Directions has done an amazing job of making all of these available to English readers. They brought out By Night in Chile to great reviews back in 2003. Then Distant Star came out shortly thereafter followed by Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Amulet, and a collection of his poetry entitled Romantic Dogs. The Skating Rink (translated by Chris Andrews, who has done all of the works of fiction New Directions has published) releases this month, and there are even more Bolaño books scheduled for the next couple years. (According to Wyatt Mason’s review in the New York Times and wikipedia there are two novels and two story collections coming out next year, and three more books in 2011.)

When The Skating Rink came out in 1993, it really put Bolaño on the literary map. And for good reason. Playing with the detective novel genre, Bolaño uses three narrators to tell a story of love, corruption, and murder in the Spanish town of Z.

The three principle players in this dance are: Remo Moran, a successful businessman in Z; Gaspar Heredia, a former poet who works at Moran’s campground; and Enric Rosquelles, an overweight psychologist working in the town’s Social Services Department.

And of course there are also a couple women: Caridad, a somewhat crazy woman that Gaspar falls in love with; and Nuria Marti, the gorgeous figure skater who’s involved with both Remo and Enric.

All of these characters revolve around the skating rink that Enric builds for Nuria at the rundown Palacio Benvingut after she is kicked off of the national figure skating team. This is the place where Caridad leads Gaspar. It’s the same location where Remo finds a dead body.

Employing a somewhat Faulknerian technique, Bolaño lets all of the connections between these characters arise from the voices of the three male protagonists. Chapters alternate among the three, with each small bit reading almost like a confession, or a response to questioning about the murder. As other reviewers have remarked, although there’s no actual detective in the novel, it’s the mystery of who dies and who killed her that really drives the novel.

Novels in voices are a personal favorite, and it’s very interesting how authors create plot tensions and anticipation through the use of different narrators. In this case, Bolaño lets you know straight off that there’s something up. The opening section, narrated by Remo, refers to Jack the Ripper, makes an elusive reference to murder, and admits that yes, he knows Gaspar Heredia.

But Enric Rosquelles’s first speech is the most interesting in its allusions and defensive tone:

Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. [. . .] Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected.

For a book that leaps ahead through three different perspectives, the pacing is pretty good. There are a few bits that drag a bit, but the payoff is well, well worth it. Granted, The Skating Rink isn’t loaded with big philosophical ideas about the twentieth century or artistic movements, but it operates according to its own rules, and does so in a way that’s incredibly enjoyable. Yet another example of why Bolaño is considered one of the finest world novelists of the past twenty years.

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

That I didn’t realize New Directions has a blog. Not terribly active, but still, today’s post about Borges’s history with ND is pretty interesting. To provide some context for this quote: earlier in the summer ND held a contest to see if anyone could identify the first publication of Borges by ND. Answer: Two stories (“Investigations on the Death of Herbert Quian” and “The Circular Ruins”) appeared in New Directions in Prose and Poetry 11. And here’s a bit more info from translator Donald Yates:

“This early appearance of Borges’s fiction was the result of James Laughlin’s recognition of Borges’s importance, and no doubt influenced his decision to offer a contract when the manuscript of Labyrinths came across his desk — after it had been rejected by other publishers, including Barney Rosset at Grove Press, who immediately rushed ahead with a translation — by Anthony Kerrigan, et al., — of Borges’s Ficciones — immediately after Borges shared with Samuel Beckett the First International Editors in 1961.

“In a sense, I think it helped in Borges’ critical reception here. A lot of reviewers sat up and paid attention when two Borges collections came across their desk and often (New York Times, e.g.) both were reviewed together. If I had it all to do over again, since we had access to all of Borges’s prose published through 1960, I would have also included `El sur,’ `El aleph.’ and as you point out, `Herbert Quain.’”

“I was properly scolded by my friend Anthony Boucher, who reviewed mystery fiction for the NYTBR, for leaving out that story that touched on a subject close to both our hearts — detective literature. He, by the way, did the first translation ever of a Borges tale in English: `The Garden of Forking Paths,’ which appeared in the August, 1948, issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In early 1963, Time magazine selected Labyrinths as one of the top ten fiction titles published in 1962. And in 2008 The Authors Society of London named Labyrinths as one of 50 outstanding English-language translations of the previous 50 years.” –Donald Yates

Hopefully ND keeps this up. That place must be a treasure trove of interesting literary anecdotes.

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m planning on writing a post next week with the current list of books that have been nominated for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award longlist. (It’s an era of transparency, no? And besides, wouldn’t you like a bit of time to be able to read some of these titles before the longlist announcement?) I don’t think I’m giving too much away by admitting that Christensen’s Azorno is on that list.

Timothy Nassau’s review (Tim’s been doing a fantastic job interning here over the summer), pretty clearly demonstrates why at least one of our judges really likes this book:

Inger Christensen, who passed away in January of this year, is best known in America as an experimental poet, if she is known at all. Now the second of her three novels (also the second to appear in English; Harvill Press published her 1976 book The Painted Room in 2000) is finally appearing in America over forty years after it was written.

On page one of Azorno, the narrator says, “I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.” Perhaps you have more patience than I, but if not, flip to page eight and be prepared for disappointment: there is no “he,” though there are two women. Unfortunately, we met them a few pages back. Perhaps, then, an error in the translation, a slight shift in font size that cooked the numbers? Perhaps… but there is no such meeting on page seven or page nine, and none to be found on six or ten for that matter. Yet lovers of metafiction need not despair, for Inger Christensen is merely setting the stage for her endlessly puzzling and dazzling novel, a contradictory work that may or may not be self-referential, but is never content with the confines of reality.

Five women—who sometimes appear as friends, sometimes as complete strangers—are, or have been, involved with the writer Sampel. It is Sampel’s most recent book’s eighth page that is referenced on the first page of this one, and the “he” who meets the woman is Azorno, the main character for both Sampel and Christensen. The novel (which is only about 100 pages, and really should be read in one sitting) does not have a central plot, but is broken up into different sections, each with a different narrator. In the first twenty pages or so, the women write a series of letters in which they argue over who the woman in Sampel’s book is supposed to be. A later section is presented as part of a novel by one of the women, Louise, but then another, Katarina, claims to be the author and admits she used her friend’s name as a pseudonym. In a third section, however, Randi also claims that she is the one writing the book. Later it will be Bet Sampel, who is Sampel’s wife, and finally by the end Sampel gets a chance to speak, but then he claims to be Azorno. If this is not confusing enough, the same details reappear again and again in different narratives and completely different contexts: a dog named Goethe, a drawing on the wall near a cigarette stain; even whole chunks of text are copied verbatim from one page onto another.

Click here for the full review.

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Inger Christensen, who passed away in January of this year, is best known in America as an experimental poet, if she is known at all. Now the second of her three novels (also the second to appear in English; Harvill Press published her 1976 book The Painted Room in 2000) is finally appearing in America over forty years after it was written.

On page one of Azorno, the narrator says, “I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.” Perhaps you have more patience than I, but if not, flip to page eight and be prepared for disappointment: there is no “he,” though there are two women. Unfortunately, we met them a few pages back. Perhaps, then, an error in the translation, a slight shift in font size that cooked the numbers? Perhaps… but there is no such meeting on page seven or page nine, and none to be found on six or ten for that matter. Yet lovers of metafiction need not despair, for Inger Christensen is merely setting the stage for her endlessly puzzling and dazzling novel, a contradictory work that may or may not be self-referential, but is never content with the confines of reality.

Five women—who sometimes appear as friends, sometimes as complete strangers—are, or have been, involved with the writer Sampel. It is Sampel’s most recent book’s eighth page that is referenced on the first page of this one, and the “he” who meets the woman is Azorno, the main character for both Sampel and Christensen. The novel (which is only about 100 pages, and really should be read in one sitting) does not have a central plot, but is broken up into different sections, each with a different narrator. In the first twenty pages or so, the women write a series of letters in which they argue over who the woman in Sampel’s book is supposed to be. A later section is presented as part of a novel by one of the women, Louise, but then another, Katarina, claims to be the author and admits she used her friend’s name as a pseudonym. In a third section, however, Randi also claims that she is the one writing the book. Later it will be Bet Sampel, who is Sampel’s wife, and finally by the end Sampel gets a chance to speak, but then he claims to be Azorno. If this is not confusing enough, the same details reappear again and again in different narratives and completely different contexts: a dog named Goethe, a drawing on the wall near a cigarette stain; even whole chunks of text are copied verbatim from one page onto another. One metaphor that makes several appearances is particularly beautiful, and in some ways captures the reader’s strange sense of déjà vu:

Within a second my blood, my thoughts, nerves, and senses were swept back ten years and I think I felt like a diver who finds himself at the bottom of the ocean one minute and on solid ground the next, unable to hear whether the others are saying he’s dead or alive because he’s encapsulated in a silence as vast as if he’d brought the ocean up with him and it surrounded him now like a huge bell that no one could pass through without drowning.

It is difficult to penetrate the thoughts of each character, and even figure out where he or she is in time. Because the text has so many internal contradictions and just plain confusing passages (Wrap your mind around this: “Probably the truth will come out, Xenia’s letter should be called Randi’s letter; she’s always been quite a liar; I mean Randi, meaning Xenia”), it is not clear if the narrators are delusional, if they are referring to a novel-within-a-novel(-within-a-novel), or if Christensen is simply having her fun. I do not know, and I do not even know if I am supposed to know, but the result is most definitely a puzzle with pieces that can be put together in a plethora of unique and rewarding ways.

One of Christensen’s chief concerns was the relationship of language and reality, and her writing in Azorno is always lively and frequently experimental. The author’s background in poetry comes out both in the structure of the work as a whole, and from page to page. The repetition of certain paragraphs throughout the novel gives the work overall the feel of a villanelle, and lends it the circularity and shifts in perception of this poetic form, two themes perfectly suited for Azorno. Christensen owes a more direct debt to the American concrete-poets, who used words more as brush strokes than as signifiers; their arrangement on the page is as important as their meaning, and in some cases supplants it. In Azorno, this influence is melded with more traditional prose in passages like this one:

First I would work out a general explanation.

Then I would explain everything to Xenia.

Then I would explain everything to Randi, in general terms.

Then I would explain everything in general to Katarina, and, in particular, my escape.

Then I would explain everything in general to Bet Sampel, and, in particular, my escape to Rome, Via Napoli 3.

Would then explain to Sampel.

Would then explain Sampel.

Explain Azorno

Explain

Plain

In

In the late afternoon, at five o’clock, I went out again.

Beyond such stylistic feats, Christensen also demonstrates a fine knack for capturing mood and emotion. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Sampel’s wife comes home while he is in bed with another woman, and there is a tremendous sense of urgency in the author describes the scene:

Sampel got up and threw on his bathrobe. The light filtered through the women’s hair. The air was green. I could clearly hear that someone was coming. On the stone staircase. On the terrace. It’s her, he whispered. By the door. On the tiled floor. Don’t move. For all the world, don’t move. Play dead. Now he was standing at the door to the stairs. She, at the door to the drawing room. She, in room after room. He, already on the stairs. She, in the dining room. He, on the stairs. She, in the living room, the sitting room. He, on the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs. She, in the garden room. He, in room after room. She, in the salon. He, in the dining room. She, in the tea salon. He, in the living room, sitting room. She, in the smoking salon. He, in the garden room. She, in the literary salon. He, in the salon. She, in the library and back again. He, in the tea salon. She, in the literary salon. He, in the smoking salon, she, in the smoking salon, he and she, in the tea salon, in the salon, in the garden room, in the sitting room, the drawing room, talking, in the dining room, in room after room, on the tiled floor, the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs, and at any moment on the staircase and right here outside the door to the bedroom where I lay while Sampel got up and threw on his bathrobe, and now he was standing with her on the tiled floor at the foot of the stairs talking and talking like a radio station that at last fades out and disappears.

Part love story, mystery, and madhouse, Azorno is an exhilarating read that leaves you guessing whether there are even any answers at all.

1 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Phillip Witte (former Open Letter intern, current New Directions intern) on Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae, the sixth of Hoffmann’s books to be published by ND. I think this is the only work of fiction I’ve ever come across with no page numbers . . .

Here’s the opening of Phil’s review:

Imagine the scene we are all familiar with: you are writing up a C.V. to send out to those who might judge your capabilities, your efficacies, and the quality of your existence to date from what you were able to condense onto a single side of a sheet of letter paper. Imagine adding, among sections detailing work experience and education, sections that enumerate your preferred breakfast cereals, your ongoing spiritual conundra, and personal illustrations that are little more than impressionist contour doodles. Imagine allowing yourself a healthy dose of humor; it can’t hurt to make your assessors laugh a little. Now imagine reading such a thing.

I have just opened Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae at random, somewhere in the middle. Having finished the book and wondering where to begin if I am to describe it, this seems an appropriate opening gesture, one I hope to justify as I continue. In any case:

“At night we slept (we and Yolanda) back to back while each one saw, as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic-strip character, different dreams.

Yolanda most likely dreamed of great gardens. Clay pots. Dalmations.

We (which is to say, I) saw heavier dreams. Landslides in the mountains and an entire town with its golden church spires buried beneath the dirt. Men spreading newspapers out on the floor and reading things in them that make the heart tremble.

It’s all so self-evident why Joyce wrote, for some twenty years, a book without any real words in it. After all, one could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another: Pot. Skyscraper. File. Scandal. Dentures. Scabies. Snow. Old age. Flute. Cobalt. Socialism.

Sometimes we made instant coffee with three teaspoons of sugar (as Yolanda liked it) and put it before her.”

Click here for the full review.

1 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Imagine the scene we are all familiar with: you are writing up a C.V. to send out to those who might judge your capabilities, your efficacies, and the quality of your existence to date from what you were able to condense onto a single side of a sheet of letter paper. Imagine adding, among sections detailing work experience and education, sections that enumerate your preferred breakfast cereals, your ongoing spiritual conundra, and personal illustrations that are little more than impressionist contour doodles. Imagine allowing yourself a healthy dose of humor; it can’t hurt to make your assessors laugh a little. Now imagine reading such a thing.

I have just opened Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae at random, somewhere in the middle. Having finished the book and wondering where to begin if I am to describe it, this seems an appropriate opening gesture, one I hope to justify as I continue. In any case:

At night we slept (we and Yolanda) back to back while each one saw, as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic-strip character, different dreams.

Yolanda most likely dreamed of great gardens. Clay pots. Dalmations.

We (which is to say, I) saw heavier dreams. Landslides in the mountains and an entire town with its golden church spires buried beneath the dirt. Men spreading newspapers out on the floor and reading things in them that make the heart tremble.

It’s all so self-evident why Joyce wrote, for some twenty years, a book without any real words in it. After all, one could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another: Pot. Skyscraper. File. Scandal. Dentures. Scabies. Snow. Old age. Flute. Cobalt. Socialism.

Sometimes we made instant coffee with three teaspoons of sugar (as Yolanda liked it) and put it before her.

Note the first two parentheticals, which clarify the two uses of “we.” Early in the book, Hoffmann advises us that he will often be referring to himself in the first person plural. He maintains this distinction vigilantly, on the one hand rendering the “royal we” so humorously, and obviously, obsolete, but also bringing around a fresh aspect of self-scrutiny: the simple, almost constant reminder that he is using the same pronoun for two subjects stresses the importance of his own life in relation to his life together with his family.

Next, note the grandiloquent generality of “reading things in them that make the heart tremble,” against the minute twentieth-century contextual analogy, “as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic strip character.” Such range of figuration is characteristic of Hoffmann’s writing in Curriculum Vitae, a sharp specificity as of the latter which justifies the appropriate use of the former. Consider this range of figurative device along with the next point: “One could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another.” In one sense, it may be Hoffmann’s own solution to Finnegans Wake. In another, this is one among countless aphoristic conclusions about life, about language, spirituality, writing—all of the biggest concerns of this writer’s existence. It is a conclusion that seems more a restatement of the problem, an unsolvable riddle, than an answer: it is like a zen koan, which is a significant point to which I will return. But philosophical bombshells like this one would surely misfire without being carefully juxtaposed against equally weighted statements of utter mundanity and real-world particularity of the final sentence, set off in its own paragraph, about instant coffee with sugar. Because this book is a condensed picture of a life, where the particular way one’s wife takes her coffee carries just as much existential weight as the crises of faith which keep one awake at night.

This is the entirety of section 34 of the book. There are one hundred sections, all of a similar length, and there are no page numbers. The book is thin, the margins wide, and the prose, as is evident in the above passage, exceedingly light. It can be read in a single (perhaps lengthy) sitting, such as a long train ride or an afternoon off in the park. It has the feel, reading it, of a book of aphorisms, or of zen koans, the latter which must be no coincidence because the author, Yoel Hoffmann, is Professor of Japanese Buddhism at Haifa University. His travels and studies in Japan are treated at length in the book, although it may be inaccurate to use the term “at length” at all. Textually speaking, there is nothing “at length” about the book, and yet the material carries the reader into realms far beyond the text: realms of humor, family life, travels, varying religions and peoples, and childhood in a distant past.

I realize that I have described the book above as a condensed picture of a life. According to the back cover blurb, it is “part novel and part memoir.” This is an accurate description: the subject is Hoffmann himself and his memories. But it is also part other things which fall into no easy categories. The book resists my simple description, and Hoffmann himself would surely scoff at it. He writes,

If I were able (by means of a deeper covenant than that which exists between author and reader) to fall on people’s necks and say to them Come, let’s sit while the tea is steeping, then drink, and you’ll tell me about your lives and I will tell of mine, I’d toss this manuscript into the trash and do precisely that. In such a world the law would forbid the making of fiction.

In no way is the novel driven by the usual devices one associates with fiction and novels: there are no motivating conflicts, no themes, and the “characters” do not exactly invoke the sympathies that generate a reader’s interest. It would seem that the book is more the memoir, with its frequent tone of reminiscence and reflection. But then again, having finished it, I cannot say I have a clear picture of the life of Yoel Hoffmann. It is largely autobiographical, but one could hardly call it an autobiography. This, I think, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. A reader may only be interested in an author’s memoiristic novel or novelistic memoir if that reader were already familiar with the author’s other work; I can certainly say that this is my first experience of the work of Yoel Hoffmann and as far as I can tell, it is as good a place to enter this Hebrew writer’s not inconsiderable oeuvre as any other (this being the sixth of his books to be published by New Directions, in English translations by Peter Cole). Indeed, I am eager to dig into some of his other works.

Part novel, part memoir, part neither, Curriculum Vitae is a frolicking dive into the self of the writer, where he finds his life’s collected works in the form of unsolvable riddles that, like a good zen koan, taste like wisdom and provide as much entertainment and satisfaction as the reader cares to draw from them.

17 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s installment in The Guardian‘s series of short stories from Eastern Europe is ‘Something Is Burning Outside’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Krasznahorkai, whose Melancholy of Resistance and War & War are both amazing and both in print from New Directions (with Satan Tango forthcoming . . . sometime), is one of Hungary’s most important, and stylistically interesting, contemporary writers.

This story—which is set at an artists’ retreat—is different in tone than the two translated novels, but is compelling in the way that all of Krasznahorkai’s fiction is compelling. And Ottilie Mulzet’s translation reads well. Here’s the opening:

Saint Anna Lake is a dead lake formed inside a crater, lying at an elevation of around 950 metres, and of a nearly astonishingly regular circular form. It is filled with rainwater: the only fish to live in it is the catfish. The bears, if they come to drink, use different paths from the humans when they saunter down from the pine-clad forests. There is a section on the further side, less frequently visited, which consists of a flat, swampy marshland: today, a path of wooden planks meanders across the marsh. It is called the Moss Lake. As for the water, rumour has it that it never freezes over; in the middle, it is always warm. The crater has been dead for millennia, as have the waters of the lake. For the most part, a great silence weighs upon the land.

It is ideal, as one of the organizers remarked to the first-day arrivals as he showed them around – ideal for reflection, as well as for refreshing strolls, which no one forgot, taking good advantage of the proximity of the camp to the highest mountain, known as the Thousand-Metre Peak; thus in both directions – up to the top of the peak, down from the peak! – the foot traffic was fairly dense: dense, but in no way did that signify that even more feverish efforts were not taking place simultaneously in the camp below; time, as was its wont, wore on, and ever more feverishly, as the creative ideas, originally conceived for this site, took shape and in imagination reached their final form; everyone by then having already settled into their allotted space, subsequently furnished and fixed up by their own hands, most obtaining a private room in the main building, but there were also those who withdrew into a log hut, or a shed long since fallen into disuse; three moved up into the enormous attic of the house that served as the camp’s focal point, each one partitioning off separate spaces for themselves – and this, by the way, was the one great necessity for all: to be alone while working; everyone demanded tranquillity, undisturbed and untroubled, and that was how they set to their work, and that was just how the days passed, largely in work, with a smaller share allotted to walks, a pleasant dip in the lake, the meals and the evening sound of singing around the campfire, accompanied by home-made fruit brandy.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I believe that The Naked Eye (translated by Susan Bernofsky from the German and published by New Directions) is the fourth of Yoko Tawada’s works to make their way into English. Kodandsha did The Bridegroom Was a Dog back in 1998 (this was translated just from the Japanese), and New Directions did Where Europe Begins in 2002 (originally written in both German and Japanese) and also brought out Facing the Bridge in 2007.

Monica Carter—curator of Salonica World Lit and the literary journal E.Lire, and bookseller at Skylight Books in L.A.—wrote this review of her latest book, which is centered around the movies of Catherine Deneuve, and doesn’t sound quite as good as Tawada’s earlier works.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

For the complete review, click here.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:

Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.

Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.

Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:

“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.

Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.

One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.

I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.

I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The entire plot of Ghosts, Cesar Aira’s third novel to be translated into English and published by New Directions, is encapsulated in this story told over New Year’s Eve dinner:

Patri thought for a moment before speaking: I remember a story by Oscar Wilde, about a princess who was bored in her palace, bored with her parents, the king and queen, bored with the ministers, the generals, the chamberlains, and the jesters, whose jokes she knew by heart. One day a delegation of ghosts appeared to invite her to a party they were giving on New Year’s Eve, and their descriptions of this party, which included the disguises they would wear and the music to be played by the ghost orchestra, were so seductive, and she was so bored, that without a second thought that night she threw herself from the castle’s highest tower, so that she could die and go to the party. The others pondered the moral. So the story doesn’t say what happened at the party? asked Carmen Larrain. No. That’s where it stops.

The teenager Patri shares this story shortly before midnight, and shortly before having to decide whether she should follow in the footsteps of the princess, or stay in this world and resist the temptation of the ghosts inhabiting the building where she lives.

Taking place over the course of New Year’s Eve, this novel is set in an unfinished, soon-to-be swanky high-rise in Buenos Aires, where a number of Chilean construction workers (including Patri’s family) both work and live. The novel opens beautifully, taking the reader through a variety of perspectives, from the earlier morning visits of the future inhabitants to check in on how things are going, to the mind of the architect, to Patri’s cousin who gets all the workers their lunch, to Patri’s mom, before settling in on Patri herself. This extended intro is almost like a supernatural flight, a way of passing through all the layers of the building and the class divisions of the people involved with it. And beyond setting up the plot and players, it also gives Aira a chance to show off his skills.

Aira—who is immensely popular in his home Argentina, and is the author of dozens of novels cherished by thousands of portenos who just don’t get why he hasn’t exactly taken off in the States yet—is a remarkably skilled and varied writer. How I Became a Nun, which ND published in 2007, is rather surreal, angular, and disjointed. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter came out in English in 2006 and is more historical and detached than either of the other two titles. The scope of Aira’s imagination and skills are quite incredible—if unlabled, it would be rather difficult to surmise that these three books were written by the same person.

That said, the one intangible constant across the three is Aira’s complete control and mastery of language. His writing is always graceful, especially when setting a particular scene, be it the Argentine pampas, as in An Episode, or a oppressively hot day on a construction site in Buenos Aires.

A construction site that is an interesting nexus of both construction workers and ghosts—ghosts that peek in on the family around siesta time, silently, not disturbing anyone. These are rather playful ghosts (rather than sinister), which are taken for granted and casually discussed by the living inhabitants.

That said, there is something sinister about the ghosts—at least in the opinion of Patri’s mother who quips about the princess’s imminent disappointment when she arrives at the afterlife only to find out that all “ghosts are gay.” A comment that builds on Elisa’s earlier conversation with her adolescent daughter about the “ ‘real men’ who were destined to make them happy” and points to a deeper reading of this charming ghost story as a twisted sort of sexual coming-of-age narrative. One that hinges on Patri’s potentially deadly decision—either she chooses a “real man,” or a neutered death.

Not that this novel can be reduced so simply. The numerous architectural references (including a long dream sequence about building and the unbuilt) are more theoretical and reflect back on novel-making as a craft, and how these “word-structures” can convey meaning:

An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don’t think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it’s simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a “thought,” reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, of course, but not really from them.

Of Aira’s novels to make their way into English, this is the one with the best chance of finding its audience. The tone of this novel perfectly melds with the plot and underlying ambitions, and it’s an incredibly enjoyable book that can be read during a nice summer afternoon. All of Aira’s books are pretty short, but this is deceptive—there’s a lot of joy and thought packed into this slender volume. I’m not sure Americans will ever appreciate the diversity of his books or the precision of his prose as much as Argentinean readers do (Roberto Bolano: “Once you have started to read Aira, you don’t want to stop”), but this is a novel with a lot of appeal, which will hopefully expand his overall English readership.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In honor of today’s Ernesto Cardenal event in Ann Arbor, we thought we’d post a review of Pluriverse that Vincent Francone wrote for us.

The collection—which came out from New Directions earlier this year—covers Cardenal’s entire career, and Vincent has nothing but positive things to say about the book:

Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.

      They told me you were in love with another man
      and then I went off to my room
      and I wrote that article against the government
      that landed me in jail.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

15 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Readers of English, thank your gods: the breadth of Ernesto Cardenal’s amazing poetic career is now available for your consumption thanks to New Directions and the recently published Pluriverse. Spanning fifty-six years, the book presents Cardenal in all his guises: revolutionary, spiritualist, chronicler of man’s inhumanity to man, chilling visionary, and cosmic quasi-historian. The poems in this collection are often long, deceptively assessable, and quite dazzling.

They told me you were in love with another man
and then I went off to my room
and I wrote that article against the government
that landed me in jail.

When I first encountered the above four lines—the eighth section of Cardenal’s long poem “Epigrams”—I was sure I was reading a Latin American writer concerned, a la Neruda, with love and political strife in equal measure. I was right, but little did I know of the complete depth of Cardenal; little did I know that this poem, which is wonderful, was not necessarily a perfect synecdoche of the poet/priest/activist’s total abilities. “Epigrams” is early Cardenal, written in a period of reaction against Somoza in Nicaragua. Though its deep political leanings manifest before long, the poet as sad bastard makes an appearance first:

This will be my revenge
that one day you’ll hold in your hands the book of a famous poet
and you’ll read these lines that the author wrote for you
and you won’t even know it.

Reading the poem alongside the more famous “Zero Hour,” one can see the development beginning in Cardenal from romantic young poet to mature writer documenting injustice:

     . . . the United Fruit Company
with its revolutions for the acquisition of concessions
and exemptions of millions in import duties
and export duties, revisions of old concessions
and grants for new exploitations,
violations of contracts, violations
of the Constitution

“Zero Hour” remains one of the most striking examples of the poet as witness. The artful translation by Donald Walsh (one of seven translators contributing to this collection) captures the horror and history permeating throughout Cardenal’s long, unsettling poem:

Oh, to be able to sleep in your own bed tonight
without the fear of being pulled out of bed and taken out of your house,
the fear of knocks at the door or doorbells ringing in the night!

Pluriverse jumps from these early works to contemplative, spiritual poems that fuse Cardenal’s socio-political concerns with his religious vocation—“In respect of riches, just or unjust, / of goods be they ill-gotten or well-gotten: / All riches are unjust.” (from “Unrighteous Mammon (Luke 16:9))—sorrowful meditations, such as his “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” and the nightmarish vision of his classic “Apocalypse,” a poem that seems all the more prophetic when read today:

And the angel gave me a check drawn on the National City Bank
and said unto me: Go thou cash this check
but no bank would for all the banks were bankrupt
Skyscrapers were as though they had never been
A million simultaneous fires yet not one firefighter
nor a phone to summon an ambulance nor were there any ambulances
nor was there enough plasma in all the world
                                to help the injured of a single city”

Cardenal always keeps his eye fixed firmly to his subject, even when bouncing from place to place, as in his “Trip to New York,” a poem that offers North Americans a look at a foreigner’s view of our rampant capitalism:

                      . . . And I look
at the deep canyon, the sunken gorge of buildings
where the hidden persuaders hide behind their windows
          selling automobiles of True Happiness, canned Relief (for 30¢)
                ** The Coca-Cola Company**
we cut through the canyon of windows and trillions of dollars

A seller of old books in the Village in love with my shirt
              my cotton peasant shirt from Nicaragua
he asks me who designed it.

Reading Pluriverse from cover to cover is, in effect, charting Cardenal from his beginnings to his current, Cosmic Canticle era writings—poems that chart the progression of the universe, the Earth, and the individual all at once. The new poems in Pluriverse strive to balance all of creation on the tip of the poet’s pen, fusing a connection between man and the cosmos:

Our cycle follows the star cycle:
stars are born, grow, die; our cycle is short
            — theirs too.
They seem stable
but like us they’re slowly dying.

If the universe is expanding
from which center is it expanding?
Or is every point the center?
So then the center of the universe
is also our galaxy,
is also our planet
(and the girl who once was for me).

The cosmic/mythical quality of these new works matches the storied life of their author. Cardenal, at age eighty-four, after political opposition, after serving as ambassador for the Sandinistas, after forming the Our Lady of Solentiname commune, after being publicly admonished by Pope John Paul II, after being harassed by the current incarnation of the Sandinistas, has earned the right to look not only backward but beyond, into the furthest regions of space. His findings match the remarkable quality of his past poetry. This is essential reading.

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

Just more than two months after the longlist, we are proud to reveal the winners of the 2009 Best Translated Book Award (click here to download the official press release). The announcement was made tonight at a special award party that took place at Melville House Books in Brooklyn, and was hosted by author and critic Francisco Goldman.

For fiction, the award goes to Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein and published by Archipelago Books.



Here’s the description from our overview:

Plot summaries rarely do a book justice, but in short, this novel is about Andor Weer, a thirty-six-year-old writer who lives with his mother (a formerly gorgeous stage actress) who hasn’t left the house in fifteen years. She’s bitter, a bit deranged, and pretty aggressive, especially towards Andor’s girlfriends. The two of them are trapped in a incredibly wicked Oedipal mess. On top of this, Andor’s sister Judit defected from Hungary to pursue her music career (this defection brought about the downfall of Rebeka’s stage career), leading their mother to literally bury an casket with all of Judit’s things in the cemetery.

In short, this is a dark, twisted book, and one that’s incredibly gripping and very well written and well translated. (No surprise—Imre Goldstein’s one of the best.) Told is a looping, achronological fashion, the horrors of Andor’s life are revealed bit by bit with a hint of dark humor and a sense that the world (at least for Andor) is total shit.


*

And on the poetry end of things, the award goes to For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu and published by New Directions.



This book just happens to a be a perfect example of how one award can beget another . . . In 2005, Sawako Nakayasu actually received a PEN Translation Fund Award for her then ongoing translation of this volume. That award brought the book to the attention of New Directions, and the rest is history . . . Playful and unique, our panelists loved this collection. Made up of 111 sections, it’s “a mix of detailed scientific observations, poetics, narrative, autobiography, rhetorical experiments, hyper-realistic images, and playful linguistic subversion—all scored with the precision of a mathematical-musical structure.” A very established writer in Japan, this is only the second of Takashi Hiraide’s collections to be published in English.

Here are a couple sample pieces from the book:

8. Continuous thoughts of packaging ice. No matter what I write it melts, even the address. If and when it arrives, that person will be gone.

17. The radiant subway again. Today, too, in this still-radiant subway, small white explosions occur here and there. They are the sounds of our joints popping, the sound of an all-too-convenient despair fading away. The walls collapse, and the birds of the earth, now without hesitation, begin transporting their nests so as to set them into these daily-renewed explosions.

35. “Up ahead, difficulty.”

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading is starting a series on how the economic downturn/recession/late-capitalist implosion is impacting smaller, independent presses. As he writes, all the coverage has been focused on Random Reorganizing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Hijinks, etc., but not much on what’s going on at places like a New Directions.

His first interview is with Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions (and, full disclosure, member of Open Letter’s executive committee), and is very interesting, honest, and revealing.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like—better, worse, or about the same?

DS: We’ve seen drops in sales throughout 2008, but especially in the spring and early summer. This was due to a number of factors: lower sales, a gap between lead titles, and returns (many of which came in from Borders). Things picked up at the end of the summer and early fall because some big books came out and the college orders were coming in. (New Directions is required reading for so many literature courses.) We did see much higher than usual returns in October from booksellers. (And I hear publishing sales were down 20% overall in October.) The national accounts (meaning the chains) were returning many books. You could say that our autumn drop was due to bookstores getting nervous more than an actual drop in net sales, at least that was the case with our books.

The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains.

I don’t know if this applies to ND’s distribution relationship with W.W. Norton, but a lot of indie/university/nonprofit publishers have to pay their distributor a percentage on returns. Typically this is around 4%. And unlike the amount you pay on net sales for distribution (typically around 24-26%), there’s no way a press can put the charge on returns in a good light. With the percentage paid on net, if you’re paying more it’s because you’re selling more—sort of a win-win. But if stores are upping their returns . . . well, basically, presses just have to suck it, losing out on possible sales (if the book isn’t on the shelf, it won’t sell) and paying for it at the same time.

(This is part of the logic behind Jasmine-Jade’s million dollar lawsuit against Borders.)

Declan also points to the fantastic ND backlist as being one of the things that helps during times like these (a healthy backlist can make up for a lot of fluctuations in frontlist sales):

Most important, while we always expect people to get excited about the new books we publish—many of the most innovative and exciting foreign authors, and some of the foremost avant-garde American poets—we have always had the luxury of being able to count on the steady sale of our luminous backlist. James Laughlin started New Directions in 1936 and since then, ND has built up one of the great literary lists in American publishing. Those books are essential texts in any worthy bookstore and are adopted on a wide scale in college courses across the country.

And he also touches on the shelf life/browsing issue:

I first became really aware of New Directions books when I started haunting the St. Marks Bookstore (when it was actually on St. Marks Place) and their selection influenced what I read. I’m sure there are lots of people like me, and what’s encouraging for New Directions is that there are lots of young folks who still support the independents, recognize their value, and just eat up our books and revere the history of our press. I don’t think that’s happening quite as much in the Barnes & Nobles. As I said above, the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.

Great start to Scott’s series, and I’m excited to read what others have to say . . .

8 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Reclusive writer Inger Christensen who “built experimental poems, essays and novels around systematized and mathematical structures” passed away at the age of 73.

One of the books of 2009 that I’m most looking forward to is her novel Azorno, which New Directions is bringing out this summer. But after reading the quote above (from a skeletal AP obit) I think I’m also going to check out some of her poetry collections, especially Alphabet and Butterfly Valley: A Requiem, both of which are also available from ND.

(The Literary Saloon has links to a couple foreign obits of Christensen that look a bit more complete, including this one from Politiken.)

6 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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



Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (El Salvador1, New Directions)

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred single-spaced printed pages place on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. I am not complete in the mind . . .

This is how Senselessness, the first of Moya’s books to make its way into English, opens. To give a bit of context: the narrator is a writer who has been hired to edit a 1,100-page report collecting testimonies from survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. “I am not complete in the mind” is one of the lines from this report that surfaces throughout the novel again and again, in a way sort of haunting the narrator who is actually trying to lead a normal life hanging out in bars, picking up women, etc., while working on this very disturbing project.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was the quality of the excerpts from the 1,100-page report of atrocities. The bits are disturbing, but in a very poetic sort of way, which is one of the reasons the narrator writes a bunch down in his notebook:

You’re a poet, just listen to this beaut, I said before reading the first sentence, taking advantage of the marimba having just ended, and in my best declamatory voice, I read: Their clothes stayed sad . . . and then I observed my buddy, but he in turn looked back at me as if he were waiting, so I immediately read the second sentence in a more commanding tone of voice, if that were possible: The houses they were sad because no people were inside them . . . And then, without waiting, I read the third one: Our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men, ay! ay! . . . Who will put back all the houses? And I observed him again because by now he must have fathomed those verses that expressed to me all the despair of the massacres, but not to my buddy Toto, more of a landowner than a poet, as I sadly discovered, when I heard him mumble something like “Cool . . . ,” [. . .]

But as I wrote in my review this novel isn’t all violence and depressing stories—it actually has a number of very humorous sections (like the bit about a woman’s stinky feet) and is an incredibly human book.

And the Bernhardian rhythms of the prose are beautifully translated, absolutely drawing the reader into the narrator’s world.

Speaking of the translation, I had a chance to meet Katherine Silver last week at the MLA convention. She’s a remarkable translator—and very fun person—and told me about how she discovered Moya at the Guadalajara Book Fair. I can’t find an account of this online, but basically she said that someone gave her the book, and was blown away when she read it on the plane ride home, and decided that she absolutely had to translate it. And thankfully, Barbara Epler of New Directions (who has spectacular taste) picked it up.

And speaking of Katherine, Scott Esposito interviewed her for Bloomsbury Review, a magazine with a large circulation and completely dysfunctional website. Thankfully, the Center for the Art of Translation re-ran this interview on their site:

Scott Esposito: Now Moya is a big comma-user in Senselessness. To a large degree these commas regulate the pace of the sentences, and the sentences are always changing speed. If you compare Moya to someone like Proust of Henry James, these writers have long, elaborate sentences too, but their sentences always seem to move at the same speed, whereas with Moya we’re up and down depending on the narrator’s erratic consciousness. What was it like trying to reproduce this effect in English?

Katherine Silver: One thing we did, and this was Barbara Epler’s suggestion, we got rid of the serial commas. I liked that a lot because it made the adjective/noun combinations more fluid, like they were all one unit, and it let the comma be more of a pause in these long sentences. If we had cluttered up the book with things like serial commas I think we would have lost the impact of the punctuation.

SE: And do you feel like you were successful in keeping Moya’s rhythms?

KS: I think I was. This was the big challenge of the book, keeping Horacio’s rhythms, and I think it worked. It wasn’t the same rhythms as the Spanish obviously, but I think it mimics the effect. Whenever I see Horacio read the book out loud, I’m always very pleased. I can see him getting into a rhythm with the English, even though he’s not pronouncing the words quite right, he gets into his own rhythm and he seems to have an intuitive sense of the text. And whenever I see him read, it’s like a layering: it’s his work on the bottom, and them my translation, and then him again reading it—interpreting it, really—and drawing on both.

And as one of the big proponents for this novel when it first came out, Scott also published an interview with Moya in The Quarterly Conversation which includes a bit about the “snippets”:

Mauro Javier Cardenas: The snippets of testimony in Senselessness are taken from actual testimonies. You did some work for the human rights report where these testimonies come from. Could you talk about your experience in working with that report? I’m not trying to find out how autobiographical Senselessness is. I’m just wondering about that original experience that was later to become the starting point for the novel.

Horacio Castellanos Moya: What I did was a kind of editorial advisory work for a human rights organization toward the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998. Back then I wrote in a notebook some of the phrases from the testimonies of the witnesses of the genocide, just as I always write in my notebooks phrases from the books I am reading that make an impression on me. . . . But it was not until six years later, in 2003, when I was planning to travel to Guatemala to find a journalistic job, that I began to browse my old notebooks, found those phrases, and told myself that there was a potential novel in them. I started working on it immediately.

MJC: I remember that when I was reading Senselessness for the first time those snippets of testimony seemed almost humorous to me because of their syntax. It was only when I finished the novel that the sadness of those testimonies began to sink in. They are like relics of a world completely foreign to me, a world that was being disappeared . . .

HCM: The force of those snippets arises from the pain and the desolation that they contain in a very concentrated way; it arises too from the sadness of a Mayan culture submitted to blood and fire for 500 years. The fact that those snippets have been said by people who could barely speak Spanish and who had a different vision of the world gives them their poetic character, and to me it also gave me the liberty to use them as a rich and malleable literary material.

1 This is sort of inaccurate. From the author bio: “Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in 1957 in Honduras, but grew up in El Salvador. He has lived in Guatemala, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico (where he spent twelve years as a journalist, editor, and political analyst), Spain and Germany. . . . [He] is not living in exile as part of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

17 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

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



Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Chile, New Directions)

Nazi Literature in the Americas stands in stark contrast to the other Bolano book on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist. It’s a quarter of the length, much more concise and focused, and, in some ways, more imaginative. But it didn’t receive anywhere near the same amount of hype and attention that’s being heaped on 2666.

Which is really too bad. For a number of years now (and a number of years to come), New Directions has been publishing Bolano’s shorter works, including By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and the poetry collection Romantic Dogs. They were the first U.S. publisher to start doing Bolano and have done a great job establishing his reputation, building his fan base, etc. And there are a lot of Bolano fans who feel that these shorter works are much stronger than the sprawling, diffuse longer novels.

I think these shorter books are masterful—especially the short story collection and this “encyclopedia” of fascist writers. A very Borgesian novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas is a collection of “entries” on imaginary Nazi writers, magazines, publishers, etc. It’s a very creative book, one in which Bolano not only invents these fascist characters, but describes a lot of their works as well, capturing these authors and their works in a concise, intriguing, typically Bolano, fashion. From the section on Argentine writer Silvio Salvatico, who advocated for

among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer’s grants; the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.

He was a soccer player and a Futurist.

And about his works:

From 1930 on, burdened by a disastrous marriage and numerous offspring, he worked as a gossip columnist and copy-editor for various newspapers in the capital, hung out in dives, and practised the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him. Three titles resulted: Fields of Honor (1936), about semi-secret challenges and duels in a spectral Buenos Aires; The French Lady (1949), a story of prostitutes with hearts of gold, tango singers and detectives; and The Eyes of the Assassin (1962), a curious precursor to the psycho-killer movies of the seventies and eighties.

These biographical sketches range are sometimes disturbing, always interesting, and occasionally funny, as in this section, one of my personal favorites:

That was not to be Perez Mason’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily to Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Perez Mason would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.

Bolano is the only author who has two books on this year’s longlist, both of which are definitely worth reading.

10 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Barbara Epler gave me a copy of the new New Directions catalog at the 2666 party on Friday, and it’s so amazing that it deserves its own post.

There are a ton of translations coming out from ND next year—well, OK, nine—a good mix of classic authors (Walser, Borges, Bolano) and some new (like Guillermo Rosales). Here are some of the highlights:

The Tanners by Robert Walser (trans. by Susan Bernofsky) is coming out in May and features an introduction by W. G. Sebald (trans. by Jo Catling). Walser’s first novel, I heard Susan B. read a section of this at the PEN World Voices event last spring. It was a great reading (and great event), and made me excited to read The Tanners. The part she read wasn’t as wildly off-kilter as some of the other pieces, but it reminded me of The Assistant.

I think this is the season of Susan Bernofsky (and why not?) . . . Ini addition to the Walser, she translated The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, her first novel to be translated into English. (ND published a few story collections, and Kodansha brought out a few novellas.) (May)

Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House (trans. by Anna Kushner) sounds really intriguing. It’s about an exiled Cuban writer trapped in a halfway house after arriving in Miami in a very disturbed state. Rosales destroyed most of his work before committing suicide, but this novel survived and was published posthumously. (May)

Declan Spring is editing Inger Christensen’s novel Azorno (trans. by Denise Newman) and told me that it is as good as anything he’s worked on in the past few years. He mentioned Beckett, he mentioned Borges, and based on the description, this is the book that I’m personally most exited about from the new catalog. “Set in modern Europe, Azorno is a kind of logic puzzle or house of mirrors, concerning five women and two men. . . . Reminiscent of the works of Georges Perec and Alain Robbe-Grillet . . .” (July)

Also coming out in July is Seven Nights by Borges (tran. by Eliot Weinberger), a collection of seven lectures given by Borges in the summer of 1977.

Berberova’s Billancourt Tales (trans. by Marian Schwartz; July) and Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae (trans. by Peter Cole; July), both sound fascinating as well. As does the next Bolano title, The Skating Rink. Told by three male narrators, “The Skating Rink is not fundamentally a crime novel, or not exclusively: it’s also about political corruption, sex, the experience of immigration, and frustrated passion.” Translated by Chris Andrews, it’s due out in August. Which should be about the time that most everyone is finishing 2666 and looking for more Bolano . . .

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Fausto in relation to the post about New Directions’s forthcoming Bolano books: “The best one of the lot is Antwerp. He never wrote that well before or after.”

My Google searches for info on Antwerp are leading nowhere . . . well, actually they led me to this — Bolano’s astrology and birth chart, which is weirdly compelling.

9 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

In a post about Time Out New York‘s fall books preview, I referenced the forthcoming Roberto Bolano books that New Directions is bringing out over the next few years, but didn’t include many details.

Thanks to the incredibly New Directions Newsletter the full list of upcoming Bolano is now available:

Roberto Bolaño saw himself as a poet rather than a novelist. (When asked why, he replied: “the poetry makes me blush less”). His first collection of poems, The Romantic Dogs, will be published alongside 2666 this November and will captivate Bolaño readers as if they were viewing momentary portraits of his life. To whet readers’ appetites for Bolaño’s poems, “The Worm” can be read here. More work from Roberto Bolaño is set to be translated and published by New Directions well into the next few years, including:

Next Year:

Nazi Literature in the Americas (paperback edition, May 2009)
The Skating Rink (novel, August 2009)

In the Not-too-Distant Future:

Monsieur Pain (novel)
Antwerp (novel)
The Insufferable Gaucho (novel)
Parenthetically (essays)
Assassin Whores (short stories)
Secreto De Mal (posthumous collection of writings-stories, sketches, poems, miscellany)

I’m particularly excited about Parenthetically, and you can’t go wrong with a title like Assassin Whores . . .

7 August 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

Over at the Elegant Variation, they’ve excerpted the first chapter of Moya’s Senselessness:

We are very pleased to be able to present to you, in its entirety, the first chapter of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s remarkable novella Senselessness, with kind permission from our friends at New Directions. This book – which will appear presently atop the Recommended sidebar, and will be given away in signed editions tomorrow – is a bleak, mordantly funny marvel. Compact but dense, it will linger in your imagination. He’s been blurbed by no less than Bolano himself, and so here’s an opportunity for you to judge for yourself, via Katherine Silver’s fine translation. Enjoy.

Very cool.

8 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Shortly after arriving in Rochester with the goal of creating Open Letter, I was flipping through the Ray-Gude Merlin Agency rights list and came across Horacio Castellanos Moya. I immediately e-mailed Nicole Witt only to find out that New Directions had already purchased the rights to Senselessness.

As a publisher I was disappointed for being late to the game . . . As a reader I was thrilled that this book was going to be available in the near future, and based on the description in the rights guide, I knew this was going to be an amazing book.

The year is only half over, but so far, this is my pick for the best translation of 2008. It’s a stunning book that’s been praised by the likes of Roberto Bolano and Russell Banks. Even more exciting (disappointing from the publisher angle?) is the fact that New Directions is going to be doing more of his works, including She-Devil in the Mirror, which is Francisco Goldman’s favorite.

Anyway, I didn’t give this much of an objective review, but there’s not much to criticize about this book. Personally, I think the long quotes in the review speak for themselves.

8 July 08 | Chad W. Post |

The first of El Salvadoran Horacio Castellano Moya’s books to be translated into English, Senselessness is frankly, one of the best books to be published this year. It’s one of those rare books written in a very specific, very stylized fashion that’s simultaneously accessible and captivating.

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and ever copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.

His “task” is to edit a 1,100-page report of atrocities committed by the military against the indigenous population in an unnamed Central American country. And he has three months in which to finish.

This isn’t a novel about those atrocities though—at least not directly. Against this backdrop of what’s clearly one of the most disturbing, soul wrenching jobs in the history of editing, the narrator tries to live as normal a life as possible, getting drunk in bars, trying to pick up women, surviving amid the accounts of wretched acts in which he spends his daily life. There are several humorous sections to this book, like the bit about the woman’s stinky feet, which is absolutely hilarious in a viscerally disgusting way.

One of the many reasons this book works is the strange demented beauty of the Indians’ accounts, and the demented obsession the narrator has with the manuscript. He keeps choice quotes in a notebook, and has a tendency to read them aloud at bars to stunned, unappreciative audiences:

You’re a poet, just listen to this beaut, I said before reading the first sentence, taking advantage of the marimba having just ended, and in my best declamatory voice, I read: Their clothes stayed sad . . . and then I observed my buddy, but he in turn looked back at me as if he were waiting, so I immediately read the second sentence in a more commanding tone of voice, if that were possible: The houses they were sad because no people were inside them . . . And then, without waiting, I read the third one: Our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men, ay! ay! . . . Who will put back all the houses? And I observed him again because by now he must have fathomed those verses that expressed to me all the despair of the massacres, but not to my buddy Toto, more of a landowner than a poet, as I sadly discovered, when I heard him mumble something like “Cool . . . ,” [. . .]

Moya’s cadences and run-on sentences that turn on themselves, that contain digressions upon digressions, that shift suddenly in unexpected directions, are masterfully rendered by Katherine Silver. Anything less than a perfect translation would utterly destroy this book. Each sentence, each paragraph, flows with a beauty that is very cinematic and adds a degree of immediacy to the prose.

And, beyond the art, aside from the Bernhardian rhythms, this style, so eloquently rendered, accurately captures and represents the narrator:

[. . .] this guy with a shaved head who very cunningly segued from this remarks about Vallejo’s poetry and its relationship to indigenous languages to a subtle interrogation about my work at the archdiocese and my friendship with Erick, all packaged neatly into his conversation with me at the kitchen table, not paying any attention to calls to join the group in the living room, where things were picking up, as if the guy had known ahead of time about the psychological problems that afflicated me and that consisted of wanting to tell everything once I’d been encouraged to start talking, down to the hairs and the smells, spill it all out to a point of satiety, compulsively, in a kind of verbal spasm, as if it were an orgiastic race that would culminate in my total abandon, until I was left without secrets, until my interlocutor knew all he wanted to know, in an exhaustive confession after which I would suffer the worst possible backlash.

As the novel progresses, the plot gets a bit darker, a bit more paranoid, a bit more inconclusive, leading to an ending that is pretty startling and made me rethink all that had come before . . . I don’t want to give anything away, but any novel that ends with, “ ‘Everybody’s fucked. Be grateful you left.’ “ is a classic in my book.

26 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the eleventh Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

Like a number of other online literary commentators, I’ve been blogging the hell out of Bolano’s 2666, talking it up as one of the “Big Books of BEA,” and one of the most anticipated galleys of the year. (Which really does still trip me out. Amid all the talk of how Americans don’t like foreign literature, shy away from dead authors, don’t like tildes, etc., etc., some schlubs at BEA steal the mock-up of the three-volume paperback from the FSG stand, which, granted, was very pretty, but was filled with blank pages.) I’m more than half-way done with this, and yes, it really is amazing.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to overlook the fantastic Bolano books New Directions has published in favor of 2666 and The Savage Detectives. All of the ND books—By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, and especially Last Evenings on Earth—are a testament to Bolano’s range and ability.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is no exception. This is one of my favorite titles from this year’s group of Reading the World books. I still giggle about the idea of recommending this to public radio listeners, since the title is somewhat misleading. Or not really—this is an encyclopedia of fascist writers, magazines, books, publishers, etc. But it’s all invented, and not at all the weighty, serious tome that the title suggests.

I wrote a review of this a few months back, and rather than re-heap the praise, I’d rather just reprint one of my favorite sections:

That was not to be Perez Mason’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily to Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Perez Mason would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.

4 March 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To be honest, there isn’t a whole lot that I feel I have to say about Nazi Literature in the Americas, the latest Bolano book to make its way into English except that everyone should run out, buy it, and read it multiple times because it really is that good. Since New Directions published By Night in Chile in 2003, Bolano has been on a meteoric rise and was essentially canonized when FSG brought out The Savage Detectives last year. So I don’t really feel it’s necessary to recap Bolano’s short life and accomplishments here—besides Ben Kunkel did a much better job than I ever could in this piece that appeared in the “London Review of Books.”: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n17/kunk01_.html

Of course, Bolano had already been canonized in the Spanish speaking world before his work was ever published in English, and that process seemed to have started in earnest in 1996 with the Spanish-language publication of this encyclopedia of imagined fascists. In many ways, this is the book where the torch of Latin American “experimental” writing has clearly been passed. Of the titles translated so far—including The Savage DetectivesNazi Literature is the most aggressively plotless, forgoing the ideas of climax and denouement and instead creating an entire universe of authors, books, publishers, and, well, fascists, for the reader to peruse.

In a way, this is a concept book gone mad—something that in the hands of a lesser author could easily come off as being too cute by half—that is mesmerizing, obsessive, and incredibly fun to read. Organized into sections with names like “Forerunners and Figures of the Anti-Enlightenment,” and “The Many Masks of Max Mirebalais,” and “Magicians, Mercenaries and Miserable Creatures,” Nazi Literature in the Americas contains short bios of thirty imaginary authors who range from being merely misguided right-winger to extremely frightening fascists. (Not to mention all the publishers, magazines, secondary figures, and books listed in the “Epilogue for Monsters.”) Each bio opens with the birth and death dates (some of which are set in the future) and in a handful of pages sketches out the life and works of the author in question. Some characters—or their publishing houses or magazines—resurface, but this is one of those rare books that can truly be read at random, in any order, and will still offer up the same pleasures.

And it’s accurate to call this a pleasurable book. Despite the unsavory characters populating it, the language, the invented books, the sheer imagination present on every page is stunning and enjoyable.

That was not to be Perez Mason’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily to Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Perez Mason would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.

Although I don’t think there are any games that intricate in Nazi Literature, it is a book that exemplifies the best of what, for lack of a better term, constitutes “experimental literature.” It challenges conventions of what a work of fiction should look like while still being engaging on a number of levels. In short, Bolano is the heir to the long, grand tradition of daring, innovative Argentine writers. And everyone really should run out, buy, and read this book.

Nazi Literature in the Americas
by Roberto Bolano
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
New Directions
227 pages, $23.95
978-0-8112-1705-7

14 January 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In the face of unbridled lust for power, withdrawal from the world will fail, whether to the bourgeois’ fortified home, the philosopher’s intellectual retreat, or the dreamer’s imaginative world. Krasznahorkai doesn’t offer this as a political or moral lesson, however, but rather explores the consequences for individuals, whose depths are remorselessly revealed to us.

31 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

Over at the Literary Saloon it appears that Michael Orthofer has received a galley of Nazi Literature in the Americas, the next Bolano book to be published in English. It’s due out from New Directions in February, which is a mere 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 months away. (A third of a year! Good God!)

Well, it’s never too soon to start the hype, and Orthofer does a great job of writing selling-type copy:

First of all, it comes with an epigraph by Augusto Monterroso, which already goes a long way in winning us over.

The book itself is a sort of mock-encyclopedia of imagined author-lives, complete with an extensive bibliography (a closing section titled ‘Epilogue for Monsters’). At just over two hundred pages it looks the right size not to be too wearing, and this seems exactly the sort of thing Bolaño’s talents are suited for.

An excerpt is available in the latest Virginia Quarterly Review and if you have access to back issues of Grand Street, an excerpt appeared in issue 70, back in 2002.

2 October 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

This is absolutely fantastic. James Laughlin and Brendan Gill, of The New Yorker, recorded an interview together in 1996, shortly before their deaths in 1997. Via Papercuts.

22 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

A leading writer of Urdu fiction, Qurratulain Hyder died at the age of 80. Along with her short stories, she was the author of 12 novels.

From the BBC:

The theme of many of Hyder’s books was the pain caused by the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

Her best known novel is the epic Aag ka dariya (River of Fire) – a massive historical tale that moves between the fourth century BC to the modern day.

The book, originally written in Urdu, was later translated into English by the author herself.

River of Fire is available in the States from New Directions. It didn’t receive a ton of attention, but the reviews it got were quite decent.

15 August 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

Benjamin Lytal is at it again, this time reviewing José Maria Eça de Queirós’ The Maias. He is considered the greatest Portuguese writer, and I was just thinking about checking into him; Agualusa kept bringing him up in The Book of Chameleons. As usual, New Directions is way ahead of me. I wish they weren’t quite so good, but it’s nice to know somebody out there is looking after my interests.

But as I read on, into the long straightaway that, comprising only two years of the novel’s 70-year narrative, takes up the majority of its pages, I began to appreciate Eça’s emotional point. Where a character such as Homais, Flaubert’s pedantic pharmacist, stays face up, a fool, in reader’s minds, Eça’s aristocratic fools have a flip side: Their civic and national damnation. Ridiculous as they may be, they always have the excuse of whistling in the darkness. In Eça’s hands, a Flaubertian fool becomes a tragic symbol.

It’s not exactly a rave from Mr. Lytal—“But, as a builder of novels, Eça may deserve some immortality. “The Maias,” in its 600-page heave, does go somewhere.”—but it’s definitely going on the reading list.

31 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all Spanish readers, Letras Libres has a review by Rodrigo Fresan of the last two books by Roberto Bolano to be published posthumously.

Hopefully New Directions will bring these out after they finish doing all the others . . . And in case you’re wondering, Nazi Literature in the Americas, is the next one ND is releasing. It’s scheduled to be available in February 2008. An excerpt is already available at the ND site.

17 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

N+1 just posted The New Novel a short story by Robert Walser, translated by Damion Searls.

As a fan of Walser’s this is great, and reminds me that I should pick up The Assistant, which recently came out from New Directions.

14 June 07 | Chad W. Post |

As he implies in the opening sentence—“I never had much luck with women”—the protagonist/narrator of Vila-Matas’s first book to be translated into English is a loner. Twenty-five years ago he was a writer, having written a book about the possibility of love, but at the start of this novel, he’s working in an office leading a rather dismal existence. His time in the office doesn’t last too long though, as he takes a vacation (which becomes permanent when he’s fired) to obsess about his book chronicling the “writers of the No.” His book—the same as the one you’re reading—is constructed from a series of footnotes detailing the Bartlebys of literature. The writers who decided to quit writing (like Felipe Alfau), those who quit because they went mad (Robert Walser), and those who incorporated the Bartleby ideal into their writing (Robert Musil). As the narrator catalogs these instances of Bartleby-ness in an obsessive, all-consuming fashion, telling their stories, relating entertaining, funny anecdotes, his story starts to creep in. A “writer of the No” himself, the narrator’s story fits right in among the encyclopedia he creates about other “No” writers. Suddenly, emerging from the entertaining and interesting catalog of writers and their stories, the reader gets a sense of the narrator’s overwhelming isolation. He only has one friend, one who claims that literature ended with Robert Musil, then Felisberto Hernandez. But he also has his book and the characters that inhabit it. It’s often said that literature is a solitary enterprise (both reading and writing it), but immersed in literature, one is surrounded by compatriots.

Bartleby & Co.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
New Directions
192 pp., $14.95 (pb)

14 June 07 | Chad W. Post | Comment

I’m a big fan of Vila-Matas—as can probably be deduced from the reviews of his books that we just posted—and am thrilled to have the chance to see him read with Paul Auster next Thursday at the Cervantes Institute in New York.

The event is free and open to the public, so anyone interested in great, fun literature should definitely check this out.

The Cervantes Institute is at 211-215 East 49th St., and the event starts at 7pm.

And I can’t recommend Vila-Matas enough. He’s one of those rare authors who is incredibly literary and erudite, without being the least bit boring. His books are incredibly funny and informative, and the narrators are very memorable, relating their anger and isolation is a way that’s warm, funny, and very compelling.

The closest comparison I can think of in terms of style is Marcel Benabou, whose Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is another of the most inventive novels of the past twenty years.

There’s some info on Vila-Matas (in Spanish) at Wikipedia, and New Directions has a bit more info on their site..

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