10 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by P. T. Smith, a frequent Three Percent contributor who has also been a BTBA judge and has worked with The Scofield and Asymptote.



Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (Russia, New Vessel Press)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 74%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 16%

Judging from the cover copy and selected blurbs, the reason the Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, should win the 2017 BTBA is because it is an Important and Necessary novel: it “probe[s] the legacy of the Soviet prison camp system,” is “an important book above where Russia is today,” “discloses the weight of Soviet history,” and is “a haunting tale about the loss of national memory.” This is all true, sure, but would never be enough for me to pick up a novel, much less believe it deserves to win an award like the BTBA. More compelling is how it does these things, how the prose, structure, aesthetics, accomplish this. If a novel exists solely to be an important cultural, historical artifact, count me out.

So, Oblivion deserves to win because it’s a beautiful, creative, linguistically challenging novel interested in many things besides the history of Russia and its lasting influence. From his earliest pages, Lebedev sets the terms of his novel, not that it will be about Russia and history, but that essential to it all is language as something with a physical tangible presence in the world, about the land and the animals that inhabit it, and about the deeply, intimately personal. It is a gorgeous and mysterious, contextless, opening section:

Birches, snow, sky, road, fire, smoke, frost—I repeated the words that I remembered for only a slightly shorter time than I remembered myself. Birches, snow, firewood, sky, road, fire, smoke, frost—the words grew, as if they were material, had material energy; the words sounded symphonically, one through another, without blending, the frost was frosty, the fire fiery, the smoke smoky; the words became translucent, melting slightly, like pure flame, their phonetic casings lost their hardened precision, and the eye perceived the pure essence of meaning.

At any moment, the narrator may drift off, taking a minor observation and riffing in a widening gyre. When he witnesses an old woman “hilling potatoes in the garden,” he see a whole class of being: “These old women are a special breed—they don’t get tired, life to them is a daily chores—dig, water, hill, weed; they harness themselves habitually and probably only for themselves, without hope, without expectation, without haste.” You don’t need to agree with his insights, theories, explorations, don’t need to believe, or you can, but either way, they are beautiful, intelligent, and feed back on themselves, Lebedev’s way of giving personality to his unnamed narrator. Later, when of the same woman, he writes, “she had become something like a film strip or a gramophone recording that captured the image and the voice of the deceased; she did not embroider or invent things; she toiled as an eyewitness,” it’s a tacit admission that he is something other, not an eyewitness, not toiling. It’s this other role that allows the novel to work as it does.

One of these conceptual wanderings opens the space for the narrator to begin his recollections. Looking at his own life, the narrator meanders at length on the blindness of his elderly neighbor, known only as Grandfather II. It’s a meditation on blindness creating the consciousness of this man, and how it crafts the narrator’s perception of him, his memories of him. Grandfather II’s blindness is “why [he] did not persist in the viewer’s retina, he seeped through it, remaining a vague silhouette; you remember his profile better than his face, he somehow was always turned sideways, behind something, as if in a crowd.” As the narrator tells the story of his life with Grandfather II, making no distinction between his own memories and recollection of events before he was born, you understand that this man has some other history, and that when it is uncovered, that is when Russia’s history will be encountered. At first, the narrator seeks personal answers, to understand the role Grandfather II played in forming his childhood, and at the very moment that personal investigation becomes active, takes him to an old mining town, the space of the novel opens again, to the collective past, the narrator forced to look beyond himself, but never leaving that behind fully.

That Lebedev takes his time getting Oblivion to its destination elevates the book mightily. The novel’s structure is subtle, aligned with the moves of the narrator’s thoughts. The narrator is full of ideas, beliefs, declarations of faith and conceptual explorations, but none of it is Lebedev telling you anything, telling you the seriousness of his project, or even what that project will be. Lebedev does ask the reader to work, which is fitting for a book that should win the BTBA. The ask is rewarded as the narrator seeks answers without knowing his initial question, and uncovering more questions as he pursues answers; he’s fascinating as he stretches his language to accommodate his ideas; and throughout it all, there is the beauty in the prose and the depth of emotions found in the minor incidents that create the world of Oblivion.

16 February 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Peter Biello on Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre, translated by Howard Curtis and out from New Vessel Press.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying side that reflects, more than anything else, the emotional state of the storyteller, an unnamed narrator still reeling from his divorce many years ago.

The novel begins as the narrator runs into an old friend, Jean, whose life has similarly stalled. With a wink and a nod they resume the friendship that they had lost years ago. We’re also introduced to Marco, or Marc-André, who, along with Jean, becomes the third member of this sad band of rapidly-aging, aimless men. As the novel unfolds, we learn about the narrator’s divorce from Anaïs, and the painful estrangement from his son, Benjamin.

Early in the novel, we learn the great extent to which the narrator’s mind torments him. “Since my separation, I haven’t had a real love affair,” the narrator tells us. “I don’t have the strength for it anymore, I kept telling myself. But why would I need strength? How the time passes . . . Quite often, my thinking stops there, and I try to sleep immediately afterwards, because I really don’t know what’s waiting for me if I keep thinking.” What little hope remains in his heart he’s found in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said there are no second acts in American life. “There are no second acts,” the narrator says. “But I still believe there are, from time to time.”

For the rest of the review, go here.

16 February 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying side that reflects, more than anything else, the emotional state of the storyteller, an unnamed narrator still reeling from his divorce many years ago.

The novel begins as the narrator runs into an old friend, Jean, whose life has similarly stalled. With a wink and a nod they resume the friendship that they had lost years ago. We’re also introduced to Marco, or Marc-André, who, along with Jean, becomes the third member of this sad band of rapidly-aging, aimless men. As the novel unfolds, we learn about the narrator’s divorce from Anaïs, and the painful estrangement from his son, Benjamin.

Early in the novel, we learn the great extent to which the narrator’s mind torments him. “Since my separation, I haven’t had a real love affair,” the narrator tells us. “I don’t have the strength for it anymore, I kept telling myself. But why would I need strength? How the time passes . . . Quite often, my thinking stops there, and I try to sleep immediately afterwards, because I really don’t know what’s waiting for me if I keep thinking.” What little hope remains in his heart he’s found in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said there are no second acts in American life. “There are no second acts,” the narrator says. “But I still believe there are, from time to time.”

He finds his second act in Marie, a woman he meets through an online dating website. When she begins treatment for breast cancer, the narrator finds himself once again falling in love and discovering that, despite what he has told himself, he does have the strength for another love affair—one that could last long enough to be considered a “second act.”

The immersive power of the novel comes from the narrator’s voice. He begins each paragraph somewhere, then wanders somewhere else, jumping idea to idea, often without starting new sentences. The reader must slow down to figure out whether he’s integrating dialogue into his prose or recalling something someone once said or mocking someone. But in forcing us to slow down, the author has invited us to occupy the narrator’s mind perhaps more intimately than we would otherwise.

By the end, we’re left feeling good about the narrator’s “second act,” though we realize that, on some level, most of the man’s life has gone by, much of it spent in some state of misery or confusion. It’s easy to see how many people—men, of course, but women, too—can relate to guys like this narrator. After all, he does say, with his touch of dry humor, “there are only a few million of us, I think.”

15 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis |

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see it clearly before me. Its colors are glaring and harsh in their brightness. But as soon as I rush to capture it, it explodes, and what I write down are separate bits that don’t form a whole. Do you see it now? It’s as if I tried to glue together a broken vase, piece by piece. But the shards are so fragmentary that I don’t know which goes with which or how I fit them together, there’s always one fragment left over. But this fragment! It makes the poem. It alone gives meaning . . . . My requiem should be a vase with water shooting through the glue in its cracks.

Soon after this speech, Kumamoto wrote this “requiem”—which he also called “his poem”—and now Hiro is writing his. Also, like his friend, Hiro is fixated on a broken object; in this case, it’s his bedroom wall, which has a hairline fissure that he’s been staring at for the last two years, so he can figure out how to fit himself inside it. Hiro has spent a lot of time staring at this crack, because following a traumatic incident when he was eighteen, he became a hikikomori, a young person who shuts him- or herself in a room and has no interaction with anyone else. Even though his parents still left food at his door, they pretty much gave up on him. However, at the beginning of this wonderful novel from Japanese-Austrian writer Milena Michiko Flašar, Hiro finally re-emerges into the outside world.

After leaving his parents’ house, he makes his way through the hustle and bustle of the city streets and finds sanctuary in a park he remembers from his childhood. Every day for months, he sits on the bench in the park, alone and indifferent to his surroundings. Then, one day, Ohara Tetsu appears. Hiro calls this man, who is sitting on the bench beside his, “Necktie” because of the red-and-gray striped tie he wears with his suit. At first, Hiro quietly observes this man as he eats his lunch, reads his paper, and takes naps. For a couple of weeks, they share the same spot in the park without saying much to each other, although Hiro begins to wonder why he spends so much time in the park instead of an office. Then one day, “he looked at me unexpectedly through the rain. I jumped up. I hadn’t counted on that. Not with this unexpected knowing look. I’m not alone, it said, you are there.”

At this point, Hiro begins to “fall out of his cocoon” and allows himself to befriend this “salaryman” in his mid-fifties. The two start out with a silent understanding, but eventually Hiro, who had unsuccessfully tried to forget how to speak, and Tetsu engage in a conversation. Actually, Tetsu does all the talking. After making small talk about the dangers of smoking and the work his wife Kyōko puts into his bento box lunches, he confesses that he hasn’t yet told her that he was fired for sleeping on the job.

From that moment, Hiro, despite his initial reluctance, becomes Tetsu’s confidant. For months, they meet each other every day in the park; when it rains, they hang out in a jazz club. At first, it seems that these two unlikely friends couldn’t be more opposite. After all, Hiro has never been in the workforce—and doesn’t appear to have any plans to enter it—while Tetsu has dedicated most of his life to the firm that eventually fired him. However, as they start to share painful moments from their pasts, they realize that they have something important in common: both came from families that put pressure on them to be and act a certain way. So while Tetsu did not shut himself in his bedroom in his parents’ house, he shut himself off from the world in other ways. Furthermore, like Hiro, Tetsu is starting to experience freedom once again.

I Called Him Necktie is a story about wanting to belong to a world that has allowed you that freedom. Hiro wants to belong to his family again, while Tetsu wants to continue to be useful to his wife. As their friendship grows, the two learn they cannot just shut themselves in a room or a nightclub or even in an office. They have to exist as flesh-and-blood human beings with souls in an increasingly mechanical world. They have to live. But fortunately, they also have each other to help them through it.

Flašar further strengthens the bond between her characters through her minimal prose style, which comes through wonderfully through Sheila Dickie’s sensitive translation. Flašar doesn’t just discuss poetry in her novel: Hiro’s simple, childlike narration has its own unique rhythm that not only fit his character, but it never gets caught up in all of the noise and flash outside of the park. Instead, as a narrator, Hiro focuses on the delicate nature of human beings. In addition, the minimal use of punctuation shows a language that is unhampered by formality, so it flows like the water through the cracked vase mentioned in Kumamoto’s speech. Because of the touching story and poetic quality of the prose, I Called Him Necktie is a book that readers of literature-in-translation will definitely want in their collection.

5 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Katherine Rucker on The Missing Years of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated by Nick Caistor, from New Vessel Press.

Katherine is another of the students in the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, whose name you may recognize from this recent post asking for any information on non-Argentine Spanish lit. In addition to bringing some very interesting samples into our Plüb Translation Workshop, Katherine has a knowledge of whiskeys not to be trifled with (being raised in Kentucky), and owns a baby donkey back home.

Here’s a little bit from Katherine’s review:

Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full ones. It’s a novel where the things that are left out are just as important as the pieces we’re given. Through a series of vignette-like chapters which are set, unlike most contemporary Argentine novels, outside of the scope of Buenos Aires, Mairal shows us what life is like in the parts of the country that don’t get as much attention. Life in the small village of Barrancales centers around sneaking things across the Uruguayan border, fishing on the bank of the river, and crazy old men whose shotguns have been rigged so they can’t actually shoot innocent passersby. There’s also an old shed that’s been locked and abandoned for years, protecting sixty canvas scrolls from the weather.

It’s these scrolls the protagonist, Miguel, is after when he returns to the village following the death of his parents. That’s when he unearths the life work of his late father, Juan Salvatierra: a continuous mural that begins shortly after the accident that rendered the artist mute and carries on until just days before his death. The sequence—dreamlike, beautiful, at times laden with artistic metaphor, speaks about what Salvatierra himself couldn’t.

For the rest of the review, go here.

5 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Some time ago I read this phrase: “The page is the only place in the universe God left blank for me.”

Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full ones. It’s a novel where the things that are left out are just as important as the pieces we’re given. Through a series of vignette-like chapters which are set, unlike most contemporary Argentine novels, outside of the scope of Buenos Aires, Mairal shows us what life is like in the parts of the country that don’t get as much attention. Life in the small village of Barrancales centers around sneaking things across the Uruguayan border, fishing on the bank of the river, and crazy old men whose shotguns have been rigged so they can’t actually shoot innocent passersby. There’s also an old shed that’s been locked and abandoned for years, protecting sixty canvas scrolls from the weather.

It’s these scrolls the protagonist, Miguel, is after when he returns to the village following the death of his parents. That’s when he unearths the life work of his late father, Juan Salvatierra: a continuous mural that begins shortly after the accident that rendered the artist mute and carries on until just days before his death. The sequence—dreamlike, beautiful, at times laden with artistic metaphor, speaks about what Salvatierra himself couldn’t:

I think he saw his work as something too personal, a kind of intimate diary, an illustrated autobiography. Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story. To recount his own experience in one never-ending mural. He was content with painting his own life, he had no need to show it. For him, living his life was to paint it.

What Miguel and his brother don’t find among the scrolls in the shed is one of a painting, which seems to have been stolen. Miguel has reason to believe that this particular scroll was the same one he vaguely remembers being slashed by one of his father’s friends during a whiskey-fueled, though otherwise inexplicable, duel. As it turns out, Salvatierra’s “missing year” was a little more intriguing than anyone wants to expect of their docile, artistic father.

Mairal’s prose, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, reflects the missing painting: honest, powerful, haunting. In a mere 116 pages, the reader confronts the truth and mystery of the things that we leave behind. The novel seems to rely on the principle of omission—Mairal doesn’t so much tell his readers everything as he does leave them wondering.

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is ultimately satisfying despite its loose ends, beautiful despite its sometimes ugly themes.

15 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the exciting new trends in publishing is the consolidation of mega-companies to create a totally misbalanced marketplace that mimics the unequal distribution of wealth in America that anyone who loves freedom obviously agrees with.

Well, that or the new ways that international titles are finding their way into the U.S., especially in the form of ebooks brought to you by young, exciting companies like Frisch & Co. (more on them tomorrow) and New Vessel Press.

Oh, and fuck your corporation. Or, in the immortal words of Stephen Malkmus, “Force fed integration from the corporation, I don’t need this corporation attitude.”

Digressions aside, I think it’s great that new publishers dedicated to international literature are sprouting up here and abroad, and increasing our access to interesting writing. New Vessel is one of the more ambitious (along with Deep Vellum, about which, more some other day), and has a pretty Three Percent-y mission:

New Vessel Press, founded in New York City in 2012, is an independent publishing house specializing in the translation of foreign literature into English. Today, only about three percent of the books available in the American marketplace are translations. In a globalized world, shouldn’t our choice of books be global as well? By bringing readers foreign literature and literary non-fiction as ebooks, we offer wonderful works for a very affordable price, and in a well-designed, aesthetically pleasing format. But of course, what matters most is not where the authors hail from, or what language they write in. The most important thing is the quality of the work itself. And hence our name. We publish great books, just in a new vessel.

Knowledge of foreign languages and literatures enriches our lives, offering passageways to understand and embrace the world. But corporate mergers are shrinking publishing outlets, and English increasingly predominates as the lingua franca. We believe that literary translation is both craft and art, enabling us to traverse borders and open minds. We are committed to books that offer erudition and pleasure, provoke and scintillate, transform and transport.

Missions are great, but what’s most important are the books themselves, and their first list of six titles is rather impressive.

  • Some Day by Shemi Zarhin, translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan.

Some Day is a family saga in which the characters find themselves caught in cycles of repetition, as if they were “rhymes in a poem, cursed with history.” They are victims of everyday magic—enchanted recipes that bring happiness and tragedy to the cooks and diners, mysterious curses that cause people’s hair to fall out and their necks to swell, capitulation to sexual desire, eliminating rational thought and giving way to unhealthy urges.

Robert and Jacob are two down-and-out Polish con men living in Israel in the 1950s. They’re planning to run a scam on an American widow visiting the country with her young son. Robert, who masterminds the scheme, and Jacob who acts it out, are tough, desperate men, exiled from their native land and adrift in the hot, nasty underworld of Tel Aviv. Robert arranges for Jacob to run into Mary, an American widow, who has enough trouble with her young son to keep her occupied all day. Her heart is open though, and the men are hoping her wallet is too. What follows is a story of love, deception, cruelty and shame, as Jacob pretends to fall in love with the American. But it’s not just Jacob who seems to be performing a role; nearly all the characters are actors in an ugly story, complete with parts for murder and suicide.

In 1776 Fanny von Arnstein, the daughter of the Jewish master of the royal mint in Berlin, came to Vienna as an 18-year-old bride. She brought with her the intellectual sharpness and vitality of her birthplace. As the daughter of a wealthy Prussian Jew, she was influenced by the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a family friend who spearheaded the emancipation of German Jewry. She married a financier to the Austro-Hungarian imperial court, and in 1798 her husband became the first unconverted Jew in Austria to be granted the title of baron. Soon Fanny hosted an ever more splendid salon which attracted the leading figures of the Enlightenment.

At the age of nine, Juan Salvatierra became mute following a horse riding accident. At twenty, he began secretly painting a series of long rolls of canvas in which he minutely detailed six decades of life in his village on Argentina’s river frontier with Uruguay. After the death of Salvatierra, his sons return to the village from Buenos Aires to deal with their inheritance: a shed packed with painted rolls stretching over two miles in length and depicting personal and communal history. Museum curators from Europe come calling to acquire this strange, gargantuan artwork. But an essential one of its rolls is missing. A search that illuminates the links between art and life ensues, as an intrigue of family secrets buried in the past cast their shadows on the present.

  • Cocaine by Pitigrilli, translated from the Italian by Eric Mosbacher.

Paris in the 1920s – dizzy and decadent. Where a young man can make a fortune with his wits . . . unless he is led into temptation. Cocaine’s dandified hero Tito Arnaudi invents lurid scandals and gruesome deaths, and sells these stories to the newspapers. But his own life becomes even more outrageous than his press reports when he acquires three demanding mistresses. Elegant, witty and wicked, Pitigrilli’s classic novel was first published in Italian in 1921 and charts the comedy and tragedy of a young man’s downfall and the lure of a bygone era. The novel’s descriptions of sex and drug use prompted church authorities to place it on a list of “forbidden” books, while appealing to filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder who wrote a script based on the tale.

The Good Life Elsewhere is a very funny book. It is also a very sad one. In it, Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov tells the story of a group of villagers and their tragicomic efforts, against all odds and at any cost, to emigrate from Europe’s most impoverished nation to Italy for work. This is a book with wild imagination and heartbreaking honesty, grim appraisals alongside optimistic commentary about the nature of human striving.

For now, you can preorder all of these via the New Vessel website, and in the near future, all the titles will be listed on your electronic vending platform of choice. And be sure to “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

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