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.

29 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, out from FSG.

Andrés Neuman has quickly become an in-house name here at Open Letter/Three Percent, and, as Jeremy hints at in his review, everyone either can’t wait to get started on reading him, or can’t wait to keep reading him. Andrés will also be at the University of Rochester at the end of April for our Reading the World Conversation Series event.

Jeremy has written for The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on Powells.com, and is a great source of reviews in general and reader of world lit. Here’s a bit from his review:

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

For the rest of the review, go here.

29 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you somehow managed to overlook the 2012 translation of Andrés Neuman’s breathtaking Traveler of the Century (and woe betide all whom continue to do so), you now have two exceptional works of fiction from the young Argentine virtuoso demanding your immediate attention.

Accolades aplenty have been piling up for Neuman since publishing his first novel (the as-yet untranslated Bariloche) at the age of 22: he was named to the illustrious Bogotá 39 list of outstanding young Latin American authors (sharing company with the likes of Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Eduardo Halfón, Santiago Roncagliolo, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and Jorge Volpi, among others) and has been awarded both the Alfaguara and Spain’s National Critics prizes—and was twice a finalist for the Herralde Prize. Prestigious honors celebrating an already prodigious output—Neuman has authored some twenty works, including five novels, five books of short stories, nine collections of poetry (not including the volume that assembles a decade’s worth), a selection of aphorisms and literary essays, and a travel book about Latin America. Oh, and he translates poetry into Spanish. And writes a regular column. And maintains a very popular literary blog (which, unsurprisingly by now, was named one of the best in Spanish by an El cultural survey). All of this and yet he’s still a few years shy of his 40th birthday.

Roberto Bolaño, always the veritable critic, arbiter, and champion of literary prowess, in an essay entitled “Neuman, Touched by Grace” (collected in Between Parentheses), offered the following non-hyperbolic sentiment:

Among young writers who’ve already published a first book, Neuman may be the youngest of all, and his precocity, which comes studded with lightning bolts and proclamations, isn’t his greatest virtue. born in argentina in 1977, but raised in andalusia, andrés neuman is the author of a book of poems, Métodos de la noche Night Methods, published by Hiperión in 1998, and Bariloche, an excellent first novel that was a finalist for the most recent Herralde Prize.

The novel is about a trash collector in Buenos Aires who works jigsaw puzzles in his spare time. I happened to be on the prize committee and Neuman’s novel at once enthralled—to use an early twentieth-century term—and hypnotized me. In it, good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

Talking to Ourselves (_Hablar solos), the second of Neuman’s books to be rendered into English, could not be more unlike its predecessor in translation—be it thematically or stylistically. Whereas Traveler of the Century was an epic novel of ideas, Talking to Ourselves is a far more intimate, personal work dealing with loss and mortality. There are no early-19th century self-rearranging german towns or cave-dwelling organ grinders to be found herein, but instead a small family forced to confront a reality teetering precariously upon the cusp of sorrow and uncertainty.

I wonder whether, perhaps without realizing it, we seek out the books we need to read. Or whether books themselves, which are intelligent entities, detect their readers and catch their eye. In the end, every book is the I Ching. you pick it up, open it and there it is, there you are.

Set across an ambiguous landscape that appears to encompass both Spain and Latin America, Talking to Ourselves transcends geographical borders as easily as it does those of fidelity and compassion. Mario, afflicted with a cancer that brings him ever closer to death, sets out on (what he knows to be) a final road trip with his young son, Lito. staying behind is Mario’s wife, Elena, heartbroken over her family’s impending fate, yet able to find mild comfort within the pages of literature. With Mario’s illness looming, husband/father, wife/mother, and son are left to make sense of their inevitable realities however best they can—longing for intimacy and release, yet unable to overcome the emotional alienation imposed upon them by imminent dissolution.

“There’s a lot of horribleness [she] refuses to countenance,” I agree with what Helen Garner writes in one of her novels, “but it won’t just go away.” In fact the job of horror is to do the opposite: to resurface. “So somebody else has to sort of live it.” By avoiding the subject of death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little. “Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose.” And feeds it. “It drives madness into the soul.” Like one truck driving into another. “It leaches out virtue.” Leaves it barren. “And makes a mockery of love.” And there are no more clean embraces. Here all of us fall ill.

Told, in turns, from the perspective of each of the three main characters, Talking to Ourselves is, narratively speaking, a most ambitious effort. Alternating between Lito, Elena, and Mario, Neuman captures the distinction and nuance of these individual voices—inhabiting their inner worlds (in one form or another) to reveal fears, hopes, misgivings, doubts, and longings. Not only is each respective chapter told from the viewpoint of one of the three—each is also conveyed in a different format altogether: Lito’s excitable, curious, and impatient stream-of-thought expression befitting a 10-year old, Elena’s ongoing and forthright diary compositions, and Mario’s series of tape recordings to be left behind for Lito after his passing. Neuman’s stylistic choice works to magnificent effect (however arduous a task it must have been to pull off), as he easily transitions between voices and forms to reveal the thoughts and feelings that seem to so overwhelm each character, despite their inability to share openly with one another.

We all live in an ellipsis.

While missing her husband and son terribly (and worrying incessantly about their well-being), Elena, per the fragility of her immediate existence, allows herself to be courted by Mario’s doctor—an affair that first excites, but later disgusts. As she records her daily interactions within her journal, she also discovers parallels within the books she reads (which include, it must be mentioned, the likes of César Aira, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Anton Chekhov, Richard Ford, Javier Marías, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’connor, Kenzaburō Ōe, Cynthia Ozick, Virginia Woolf, and others), excerpting them in her diary as if to corroborate her own interior state—or, at the least, to help make sense of its ceaseless tumult.

Work, work. That’s all I know how to do. You have to be very sad to hate vacations. You are so responsible, people tell me. They can go to hell. I look for things to be responsible for because I can’t be responsible for myself. Sometimes I think I don’t deserve to be a mother. Sometimes I think I had a child in order to stop myself from jumping out of the window. Sometimes I think I should have been the one who got ill. Sometimes I think about being fucked hard. Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.

Foolish it would be for the reader to look for answers pertaining to the existential dilemmas of life and love. Talking to Ourselves considers a host of subjects, not the least of which being death, sickness, caretaking, parenthood and filial responsibility, devotion and infidelity, sex, passion, the duality of pleasure and pain, mourning, dishonesty, individual experience, and the inherent differences between men and women. If Neuman’s novel seems rich with life, it’s not only because his characters and their situations are so well-conceived, but also on account of his story being the stuff that life is so often composed of. To be sure, there are moments of tenderness, joy, and humor to be found throughout the book (especially when narrated by young Lito)—but Neuman’s capacity for unyielding compassion in the face of unflinching circumstance speaks volumes about the depths of his empathy and ability to synthesize through fiction the often unsettling realities and conflicting motivations of mortal existence.

When I see a couple kissing, believing they love one another, believing they will endure, whispering into each other’s ear in the name of an instinct to which they give lofty names, when I see them caressing one another with that embarrassing avidness, that expectation of discovering something crucial in the other’s skin, when I see their mouths becoming entangled, the exchange of tongues, their freshly showered hair, their unruly hands, fabric rubbing and lifting up the like the most sordid of curtains, the anxious tic of knees bouncing like springs, cheap beds in one-night hotels they will later remember as palaces, when I see two fools expressing their desire with impunity in broad daylight, as though I weren’t watching them, it’s not merely envy I feel. I also pity them. I pity their rotten future. And I get up and ask for the bill and I smile at them askance, as though I had returned from a war which the two of them have no idea is about to commence.

With but a pair of works currently in translation, it is still rather evident that Andrés Neuman possesses a formidable talent. Talking to Ourselves, despite its solemnity (tempered though it may be by beauty and bittersweetness), is an exceptional work of considerable emotional breadth. While the story itself may well be dolorous, it radiates with an authenticity that can often be elusive in fiction. There’s a vibrancy and liveliness to Neuman’s writing (as well-evidenced, too, in Traveler of the Century) that is irresistible. Even if one were not captivated by his arresting tale, persuasive characters, or sonorous prose, the impassioned effects of his storytelling are inescapable.

Short of the inebriated automobiler who Bolaño feared might one day rob us of his wordsmithing savvy, the literature of our adolescent century may well indeed belong to Andrés Neuman (as well as Gonçalo Tavares, assuredly).

Enjoy life, do you hear?, It’s hard work enjoying life, and have patience, not too much, and look after yourself as if you knew you won’t always be young, even though you won’t know it and that’s okay, and have plenty of sex, son, do it for your sake and mine and even your mother’s, lots of sex, and if you have children, have them late, and go to the beach in winter, in winter it’s better, you’ll see, my head hurts yet I feel good, it’s hard to explain, and go traveling on your own once in a while, and try not to fall in love all the time, and care about your looks, do you hear me?, men who don’t care about their looks are afraid of being queer, and if you are queer, be a man, in short, advice isn’t much use, if you disagree with it you don’t listen, and if you already agree you don’t need it, never trust advice, son, travel agents advise you to go places they’ve never been, you’ll love more when you’re old, I thought of my father the moment we got down from that truck, our true love for our parents is posthumous, forgive me for that, I’m already proud of the things you’re going to do, I love the way you count the time on your fingers when you set the alarm clock, or do you think I don’t see?, you do it secretly, under the covers, so I won’t know you have difficulty working it out, I’m going to ask you a favor, whatever happens, whatever age you are, don’t stop counting the time on your fingers, promise me, octopus.

3 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Let’s say you’re in a car accident. It’s not a bad one. You rear-end someone on a busy highway where traffic is crawling. And let’s say the person you hit happens to be a wealthy woman who leaps from her vehicle and berates you in language unfit for the ears of small children. What would you do?

Javier, the supposed name of the protagonist of Lorenzo Silva’s novel The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, finds himself in this exact scenario and consequently decides to spend his summer playing pranks on this woman, Sonsoles, though the word “prank” hardly describes what he does. For amusement, Javier calls the woman’s home, lying in a variety of ways, all of which inflict psychological stress on Sonsoles and her family.

What kind of sick individual does such a thing? Javier is no prince, but he suffers in ways we can all, to some extent, relate to, which makes the story palatable. His job pays well, but traps him in a rat race that leaves him feeling like his soul is “a dead weight down there, just below my nut sack.” He’s alone, average-looking, and his mother died years ago. There’s no mention of his having family or friends. In our first encounter with Javier, Sonsoles treats him like trash. By the end of chapter one, Javier has decided to make Sonsoles suffer, and all this reviewer could feel is schadenfreude.

As Javier stalks Sonsoles, he sees and falls in love with her teenage sister, Rosana. He begins to lie his way into her (Rosana’s) life. Javier and Rosana meet, chat, and meet again, and eventually they find their way to a swimming pool, where Javier has something akin to a religious experience when he sees her in her bikini. Finally, when Javier decides the pranks have gone far enough, he takes Rosana to a quiet place where he’s about to break off their strange, illicit relationship, when something happens (I won’t spoil it for you) that turns Javier’s experience from revenge-as-amusement to life-altering-shitstorm.

In this short novel, Javier, who speaks to us as a first person narrator, is aware of his shortcomings, though he doesn’t present them as evidence of his innocence. He knows he’s guilty and accepts his punishment without any apparent joy or sadness. His sense of right and wrong is, in a strange way, what guides him, even when he chooses what’s wrong. In choosing revenge, he seeks balance to Sonsoles’ cruelty, though he miscalculates and tips the scales the other way. Indeed, plotting revenge requires two graves,.

The title, The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, refers to Javier. The novel attempts to establish a parallel between Javier and one imaginary Bolshevik who, before killing a beautiful Russian grand duchess, falls in love with her. “What a tender moment,” Javier tells us, “when the Bolshevik turns against himself and the Revolution to admit his already necessarily despairing love for the Grand Duchess.”

Which brings us to the class issue. Javier is well-paid, but needs to work long days to stay that way. Sonsoles’s life will be a long road paved with money and comfort. The contrast is clear: Javier is the Bolshevik, Rosana the Dutchess. It makes one wonder: Would Javier have launched his revenge quest without feeling some sort of class resentment (subconscious or otherwise)? He certainly has his views of morality and wealth/poverty (“A conscience isn’t a basic commodity, just a whim of people with full stomachs”). It’s a question that lingers. The way Javier feels about himself certainly has something to do with what his job—and, by extension, the economy as a whole—has done to him.

Money, overall, seems to hover in the background, while the emptiness at the core of Javier’s life takes center stage. As readers, we hope he fills it with the love he seems to need. In the end, though, we are left pondering Javier’s final thoughts, as well as bits of wisdom he offered throughout the book, including this little nugget: “There is no more interesting believer than the one who changes faith.”

Amen.

3 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Because we love books and love to talk about them SO MUCH (and because we fell behind a bit over the holidays AND because we’re all snowed in today after last nights semi-blizzard), here’s another review for all y’all before the weekend hits. This latest addition to our “Reviews”: section in a piece by Peter Biello on Lorenzo Silva’s The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, out from Hispabooks Publishing.

Peter Biello is the organizer of the Burlington Writers Workshop and a producer/announcer/host at Vermont Public Radio. He’s also followable on Twitter @PeterBiello.

Three cheers to Peter for not only joining the ranks as a reviewer for Three Percent, but for taking on a book that not only has the narrator explaining how his soul is a dead weight nestled between his nads, but also shows the extremes of post-road-rage.

Here’s the beginning of Peter’s review:

Let’s say you’re in a car accident. It’s not a bad one. You rear-end someone on a busy highway where traffic is crawling. And let’s say the person you hit happens to be a wealthy woman who leaps from her vehicle and berates you in language unfit for the ears of small children. What would you do?

Javier, the supposed name of the protagonist of Lorenzo Silva’s novel The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, finds himself in this exact scenario and consequently decides to spend his summer playing pranks on the woman, Sonsoles—though the word “prank” hardly describes what he does. For amusement, Javier calls the woman’s home, lying in a variety of ways, all of which inflict psychological stress on Sonsoles and her family.

What kind of sick individual does such a thing? Javier is no prince, but he suffers in ways we can all, to some extent, relate to, which makes the story palatable. His job pays well, but traps him in a rat race that leaves him feeling like his soul is “a dead weight down there, just below my nut sack.” He lives alone, is average-looking, and his mother died years ago. There’s no mention of his having family or friends. In our first encounter with Javier, Sonsoles treats him like trash. By the end of chapter one, Javier has decided to make Sonsoles suffer, and all this reviewer could feel is schadenfreude.

For the rest of the piece, go here.

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.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve been meaning to read Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century ever since we ran Jeremy Garber’s review back in April 2012. And then it made the Best Translated Book Award longlist, which further peaked my interest. But man, it’s a 500+ page book—something that’s never easy to fit into a reading schedule packed with editing projects, other reviews, etc., etc. When the paperback edition arrived on my desk though, I was sold—I had to make time to read this. So, on the long train rides to and from BookExpo America, I did.

Since this book has been in the Three Percent ether for a while, my review isn’t exactly standard . . . It’s an attempt to go one step beyond a typical plot-related book review and open it up a bit. I’m not sure this 100% works (I wrote it on GoodReads while watching a soccer match), but hopefully it’s interesting if for no other reason than that I alluded to it on last week’s podcast.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Here’s the opening:

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Click here to read the full piece.

14 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense until almost the end of the book—but why he was even in there.

For the last 150 pages I thought about this and interpreted everything that happened in the book through this lens—what purpose does the rapist serve? And in the end, I think I came up with a reason . . . at least my personal reason. One that opens up the book in a few interesting ways.

Before I get to that, let me back up a bit. First off, this book—for anyone not already familiar with it—is 564 pages of philo-political discussions, talks about translation, and little action aside from one physical confrontation and some damn fine sex scenes. At its core, this novel, set in nineteenth century Germany and featuring members of all social strata—from the organ grinder living in the cave, to the town’s aristocratic benefactor, to the protagonist, the Romantic, beret-wearing, translator Hans—is really just a simple story of illicit love. Hans wanders into Wandernburg, meets Sophie, and falls in love. (And if you read this book, you will too. Which is something I want to talk more about in a second.)

Although nothing really seems to happen in this book (like a 90s indie movie, it’s mostly talk and ideas), there are a number of settings and set pieces that flesh out Neuman’s view of the major trends in thought and society at the time. For example, the bit about the strike at the factory and the way in which the management crushes it is quite illuminating and lays out one of the main conflicts of the time.

That said, the primary setting is the weekly salon, which takes place thanks to Sophie, and features all of our main characters: Hans, Sophie, her fiancé, the Levins, the conservative old professor . . . The salon discussion unfolds for pages and pages, exploring major concepts like nationalism, the possibility of translation, the role of women in society, and Romanticism, not to mention a dozen authors/thinkers/poets/dramatists whom most people reading this (I suspect), will be unfamiliar with (which is a shame).

Anyway, it’s during these salons that Sophie comes to life. As a rebellious, independent, smart, sexy woman, she’s a sort of book-boy ideal—the woman who can namecheck all the poets while pushing all of the boundaries imposed by conservative German society and rocking an elegant dress that accentuates her womanly charms. Seriously—as a character, Sophie is fully fleshed out, and so fucking cool.

What struck me about her though—especially after talking to Bromance Will about the rapist and the fap-worthy scenes—is that she’s constantly deconstructing (in spot-on fashion) the way in which male writers and thinkers impose their ideas of Woman on women via their prose. There are several points in which Sophie calls out a poet in a way that’s much more modern than what (probably?) really existed in Germany at that time.

Which brings me to the rapist. Almost. So, one of the major planks of this book is the illicit relationship between Hans and Sophie. It takes place on the sly, on the fringes, unacceptable by all standards (especially then).

One of the reasons Neuman’s world building works so well is that he sets up a lot of parallels and opposites. In terms of the salon, Hans’s opposite is Professor Mietter, who is much more conservative and stodgy (although in many ways, the two actually agree), and in terms of the banging, the businessman Alvaro’s relationship with Sophie’s servant, Elsa, serves as a sort of parallel to Sophie’s relationship with Hans. And in terms of the opposite, we have the rapist.

A bit about the rapist: One of the darker, more traditionally suspenseful storylines in the book revolves around a man who attacks women in dark alleyways and eludes the police for quite some time. In terms of page count, this is a minor bit of the book, although the rapist’s actions impact several of our key characters. The resolution of this plot line is somewhat anti-climactic though, and it never rises above the level of sub-plot, which is why I think Will was curious about it.

One obvious reason to include the rapist is that it appeals to the traditional reader for whom 500+ pages of ideas is a bit scary. But there’s also something more at work here . . .

First off, both Hans and the rapist get their sex on outside of what’s accepted in society. Obviously one of these is much more violent and awful than the other, but within nineteenth century Germany, Hans’s plowing of a soon-to-be-married woman—who will soon be married to the richest, most important person in town no less—is really fucking unacceptable. And his attempts to get her to break off her engagement, to abandon her father and run away with him to translate contain echoes of the male poets and their ideas about women.

Stepping back a level, this is a novel written by a man in which he basically constructs a vision of an ideal woman . . . which is exactly what Sophie criticizes in all of those male poets. So, is Sophie just a male wish-fulfillment fantasy? It’s almost as if Neuman is—consciously or not—aware of this and uneasy about it. And as a result, this book contains heaps of clashing viewpoints and a sort of unceasing desire to include all of them—including the darkest sorts (rape) that offset the more romantic ideal (Hans’s pure love for Sophie).

In short, this is a really incredible book that is overflowing with ideas, told in a cool style—I love the use of parentheses to convey interjections and responses—by one of the greatest young Spanish writers of our times. So don’t be intimidated—just read it.

25 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._

Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by FSG

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

Let me entice you by stating flat out that Andres Neuman’s Alfaguara Prize-winning Traveler of the Century (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is a 600-page novel in which not much happens. In some ways, it stands, a hulking mass (Andres the Giant?), in the corner opposite Houellebecq’s Map and the Territory. (Wrestling allusion thrown in for Chad’s sake.)

There is a plot, yes—the young traveler of the title stumbles into the neither here-nor-there city of Wandernburg (think of a magic mountain nestled among invisible cities), falls in love with a betrothed woman (you will too), demonstrates the affinities between translation and love (it’s sexy), fends off the stuffy morality of small town life (no surprises here), all while a mysterious rapist is on the loose (actually, stated like this, a lot does seem to happen)—but this is above all a novel of ideas, of heady conversation, of intellect. Which, fortunately, does not make it any less riveting.

Most of the action, for lack of a better word, in Traveler of the Century takes place in a salon, among a set of conversationalists who range from the brash and revolutionary to the staid, the ill-informed, and the amusingly ill-equipped. Ideas are bandied about, poetry is recited, and sexual tension swells until it can no longer be contained. Neumann’s ability to pace a novel in which conversation is the primary mover is admirable and although some of his efforts early in the novel are a little clumsy, he picks up steam and refinement as he proceeds. This is an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold: Neumann’s work is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s one of those novels in which the seams sometimes show, reminiscent of Bolano’s Savage Detectives, in which the reader gets to watch a writer figure it out as he goes along. The rewards have to be more than sufficient for a book like this to work, and they are, they are.

Fittingly, some of most remarkable moments in Traveler of the Century concern translation. In one memorable scene, the professor, a staid conservative who rests on his laurels, argues against the possibility of translation. As the bore goes on and on, Hans, the traveler of the title, reflects that

everything he said was applicable to the field of emotions—in short, someone who disbelieved in the possibilities of translation was skeptical of love. This man . . . was linguistically born to solitude.

And, a few moments later, Hans is forced to concede a point as the professor argues

that it is far easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it . . . and from this one can deduce that any feeling expressed in another language cannot be the same feeling, not even a variant of it. At best it can be inspired by another feeling. Call this an exchange, an influence or what you will. But, I beg you, do not call it translation.

This fruitful dialectic is a prime example of Neumann’s strategy for moving his novel along. It also brings to mind several questions about the nature of translation, which is of course relevant to anyone reading this blog.

I stated earlier that this is not a perfect book, but I nevertheless believe it deserves to win the BTBA because its merits far outweigh its imperfections: Traveler of the Century is, like the wandering city in which the traveler finds he cannot escape, a place to get lost in.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Jeremy Garber on Andres Neuman’s Traveler of the Century, which is just coming out from FSG in Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia’s translation.

Jeremy Garber is a used book buyer for a large independent bookstore. (And one of my GoodReads friends, where I read a lot of his reviews.) His work has appeared in The Oregonian, the Oregon Historical Quarterly and on Powells.com. He is an avid Philadelphia Phillies fan.

I’ve been hearing about Andres Neuman for some time now, and am very excited to check out this novel. We actually featured him back in 2010 as part of our “22 Days of Awesome” series . . .

Here’s a bit from Jeremy’s review of Traveler of the Century:

Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’ stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Click here to read the entire review.

25 April 12 | Chad W. Post |

Traveler of the Century is an exquisite, dazzling work of fiction. Its author, Andrés Neuman, is a young argentinian writer, born in 1977, whose relative youth is belied by a remarkably prodigious literary output. Neuman has written nearly twenty distinct works, including four novels, nine books of poetry (a tenth compiles them), four short story collections, a book of essays, and a book of aphorisms (in addition to his translations of german poet Wilhelm Müller). His writing has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards, and his international renown is clearly on the ascendancy as his works find their way into ever more translations.

With the publication of granta’s winter 2010 issue (“Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists”), many English-speaking readers had their first introduction to Andrés Neuman via his short story “After Helena.” The late Roberto Bolaño offered his own high praise for Neuman (well before Traveler of the Century had even been written), including a short piece about him (“Neuman, Touched by Grace”) in his nonfiction collection Between Parentheses (published in English translation in 2011). Bolaño, ever the discerning critic, wrote about neuman after reading his first novel (Bariloche):

Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature, the kind written by real poets, a literature that dares to venture into the dark with open eyes and that keeps its eyes open no matter what. In principle, this is the most difficult test (also the most difficult exercise and stretch), and on no few occasions neuman pulls it off with frightening ease . . . When i come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like this happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

With Traveler of the Century, Neuman’s first book to be translated into English, it is evident that the myriad hype surrounding this young writer is indeed well-deserved.

Written in Granada between the spring of 2003 and the fall of 2008, Traveler of the Century (El Viajero del Siglo) was published in Spanish in 2009 and was summarily awarded two of Spain’s most distinguished literary honors (the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize). The awards themselves place Neuman in the company of a veritable who’s who of Latin American letters, counting as their recipients Cela, Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Onetti, Marias, and Vila-Matas, amongst others. His fourth novel, Traveler of the Century has already been translated into ten languages.

The novel is set in the small, fictional German town of Wandernburg sometime in the early nineteenth century (presumably in the mid- or late-1820s). A town where the streets are constantly rearranging themselves, “it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time.” Wandernburg, from the german verb “wandern” (to hike, ramble, roam, or wander), is nestled between Dessau and Berlin in the northeastern part of the country. Despite the metaphysical qualities inherent in the town’s geographical layout, it would be a grave error to classify Traveler of the Century as containing any elements from the Latin American subgenre of magical realism.

Instead, Neuman’s lengthy novel could be best described as a postmodern work cast in nineteenth century attire, owing more to the refinement of classical fiction than to the cleverness and affectation of more modern works. Neuman himself describes it thus: a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as a science fiction rewound.” Traveler of the Century is not set some two hundred years ago merely to capture that era’s milieu, but is done so in a way so as to compare and contrast twenty-first century ideals, beliefs, and moralities against their historical counterparts.

Hans, Traveler of the Century’s itinerant protagonist, is an enigmatic adventurer and translator, intent on a brief stopover in Wandernburg on his way to Dessau, but soon finds himself increasingly unable to make his way onward. As Hans’s stay prolongs itself, he encounters and befriends a number of local residents, including a sagacious, aging, and nameless organ grinder who lives in a nearby cave with his affectionate dog Franz. Hans, per an invitation, begins to attend weekly conversations at the home of Herr Gottlieb, one of Wandernburg’s more esteemed households. At these salon talks, populated by a small group of about six or seven, topics as varied as European history, politics, literature, poetry, religion, art, and architecture are routinely discussed and debated into the late hours of the evening. While there, Hans is introduced to Herr Gottlieb’s daughter, Sophie, a betrothed and independent young woman with whom hans later falls in love and embarks upon an ambitious translation project.

Neuman’s novel is colored by a number of rich subplots that are woven effortlessly into an already well-textured narrative. A series of nefarious and sinister crimes work their way into the tale, for example, and are portrayed in stunning complement to other rising action. Minor characters, such as Hans’s new best friend (and weekly salon attendee), Álvaro, figure prominently into the story and are as well-conceived and believable as both Hans and Sophie. Nearly every aspect of Traveler of the Century seems carefully crafted and assiduously arranged. Neuman’s prose is both beautiful and engaging, lending the novel yet another characteristic that makes up its captivating essence.

Traveler of the Century, at heart, is both a novel of ideas and a love story. Neuman explores many exigent issues throughout the book (relevant to both post-napoleonic Europe and the modern world), including continental politics, national sovereignty, war, peace, economic development, immigration, poverty, nation building, empire, women’s rights, labor, and revolution, as well as more literary subjects such as poetic norms, style, philosophy, fiction, and the role of the translator. that neuman was able to so expertly include these elements into the novel without straying into the didactic, rendering them essential components to the story, demonstrates the mastery with which he composed this fantastic book.

Neuman’s work, in all its many aspects, represents a summation of the narrative form. Traveler of the Century is a complete novel that allows us an opportunity to reassess the present (and the future) by looking behind us. It is truly a timeless tale, one that demonstrates a past, once contemplated through the often clarifying lens of fiction, not all that dissimilar from the contemporary. Andrés Neuman seems to possess a formidable talent, and Traveler of the Century may well presage a lengthy and accomplished literary career the likes of which only come along a few times in a generation. Traveler of the Century, while penned by a young, spanish author born in Argentina, is, nonetheless, an European novel of considerable consequence. As more of his works undoubtedly make their way into translation, Andrés Neuman is surely a name that will come to be uttered in the same breath of his masterful forebears.

When I was young, because I was young once like you, I heard many organ grinders play, and I can assure you no two tunes ever sounded the same, even on the same instrument. That’s how it is, isn’t it? The less love you put into things the more they resemble one another. The same goes for stories, everyone knows them by heart, but when someone tells them with love, I don’t know, they seem new.

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the University of Rochester’s mail services is back from break, I’m swimming in a sea of books, catalogs, and mailed in donations from our annual campaign. (Well, OK, maybe not swimming in a sea of donations, but thanks to all of you who did donate. And if you haven’t donated, you can by clicking here.)

One of the more interesting catalogs that arrived over break was the new Spring/Summer 2011 catalog from Dalkey Archive. There are a $%^&load of translations in here, from a number of different languages and countries. With the total number of original translations plummeting in 2010 (more on that later this week when I finally finish updating the Translation Database), I’m sure that Dalkey will be one of the top producers of translated literature.

As alluded to in the earlier post about Hotel Europa, Dalkey has traditionally supported its authors by publishing (and reissuing) several of their works, rather than dumping them if sales for a particular title aren’t all that impressive. This is very admirable, and this catalog features books from a number of “classic” Dalkey authors. (Can’t find these titles on the Dalkey site, otherwise I’d link to them. And all quotes are from the catalog):

  • Patrik Ourednik’s The Opportune Moment, 1855, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker;
  • Juan Goytisolo’s Exiled from Almost Everywhere, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush;

In Exiled from Almost Everywhere, Juan Goytisolo’s perverse mutant protagonist—the Parisian “Monster of Le Sentier”—is blown up by an extremist bomber and finds himself in the cyberspace of the Thereafter with an infinite collection of computer monitors.

  • Julian Rios’s Procession of Shadows, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor;
  • Luisa Valenzuela’s Dark Desires and the Others, translated from the Spanish by Susan E. Clark;

Dark Desires is the author’s autobiographical fantasia on the ten years she spent living in New York City. Valenzuela has called this book her “apocryphal autobiography,” and in it she says very little about her work as a writer, about the city itself, or even about literature.

  • Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan;
  • Jacques Jouet’s Upstaged, translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye;
  • Claude Ollier’s Wert and the Life without End, translated from the French by Ursula Meany Scott;
  • Goncalo M. Tavares’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technology, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

In a city not quite of any particular era, a distant and calculating man named Lenz Buchmann works as a surgeon, treating his patients as little more than equations to be solved: life and death no more than results to be worked through without the least compassion.

There are also a number of interesting sounding “new voices”:

  • Jean Rolin’s The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie;
  • Edouard Leve’s Suicide, translated from the French by Jan Steyn;
  • Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Talismano, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz;

Talismano is a novelistic exploration of writing seen as a hallucinatory journey through half-remembered, half-imagined cities—in particularly, the city of Tunis, both as it is now, and as it once was.

  • Asaf Schurr’s Motti, translated from the Hebrew by Todd Hasak-Lowy;

An unassuming, unambitious man named Motti, who owns a dog named Laika, has a good friend named Menachem. Motti and Menachem drink beer together every week, and Motti spends the rest of his time daydreaming an imaginary love story for himself and his neighbor, Ariella. Motti is the very picture of inertia, until, one night, a drunk Menachem, driving home from a bar with Motti, runs over a woman and kills her.

They’re also doing a couple Japanese Literature Publishing Project titles (Plainsong by Kazushi Hosaka and The Shadow of a Blue Cat by Naoyuki Li), and, what may the be the most exciting announcement, they’re brining out Mark Polizzotti’s new translation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa.

I’m sure we’ll end up covering a number of these on the site, and as I peruse more catalogs, I’ll post other “Spring/Summer 2011 Preview” posts . . .

15 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 4 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today we’re featuring Colombian author Andres Felipe Solano. An excerpt from his new novel—“The Cuervo Brothers”—was translated by Nick Caistor for this issue.

In the end, I wonder if the Shavelzon Agency will be the big winner of all this Granta publicity. They represent a few of the featured authors, including Andres Neuman, Pola Oloixarac, and Andres Felipe Solano. (They also represent both Manuel Puig and Juan Jose Saer, which are two reasons why I love them. That and their brochures and catalogs are as slick as sin.)

Solano has an interesting backstory (don’t all these authors?): Back in 2007 he lived in one of the diciest neighborhoods in Medellin and worked in a factory for six months. (Which reminds me of the book Mark Binelli is writing about Detroit, except for the whole “working in a factory” bit. I think the image of Mark working in a factory will keep me in giggles all day . . .) He converted this experience into an essay entitled “Seis meses con el salario minimo” (which can be translated either as “Six Months at Minimum Salary” or “FML: Minimum Wage Is a Racket!”) that was a finalist for the prize awarded by the Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, chaired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (If you’re interested, you can read the entire essay here.) Solano also had a six-month literary residence in Seoul, where he met his wife. Which is sweet.

The excerpt from his novel in progress is pretty intriguing and exemplifies a lot of ways to pull a reader in—bit of a mystery, unfounded rumors, unfounded mysterious sex rumors.

The Cuervo brothers claimed to have been transferred from a school whose name we had never heard of. The older one started in the second year, a class below me. The younger one joined in the last year of primary school. From the very first week there were all kinds of stories about them. As the months went by, these grew like the number of bullfrogs in the rainy season. During these holidays, I’ve classified them all in a notebook. Going over them carefully, I’ve established four categories:

1. Sex
2. Sinister
3. Diabolical
4. Martian

As was to be expected, the first rumour spread about them was that they were queer. Gay as butterflies, but not very brightly coloured. Brown or perhaps black, those with just a flash of yellow or aquamarine blue. When we started having girlfriends, my best friend Diego told me that one night, after seeing Alien 3 with María Adelaida in the Embajador, he caught sight of the older brother selling himself on the corner of the Terraza Pasteur shopping mall. He got into a green jeep in a parking lot and began sucking off an old guy who looked like a military man. While he was face down, the guy was playing with his false teeth, or so Diego said, without the trace of a smile. The wildest story in this category was about their bodies. According to the person telling it (I can’t remember now who that was), the brothers were born hermaphrodites, and someone saw them binding up their breasts in a toilet before a PE class. After that we got on to their families. As soon as we learned they lived on their own with their grandmother, crime was added to the sex stories we swapped during break time. The worst of these concerned the double life their mother had lived. She had been a high-class whore, but their father found out when they were only little and slit her throat. He was in Gorgona prison, and had five years left to serve of his sentence. When he got out, he was going to reclaim them, and would kill everyone who had made fun of them. I remembered, though, that in a history class once, we had been told the island prison of Gorgona had been closed in 1977, when the only inmates left were poisonous snakes.

The sinister stories all started with a melodramatic incident. At first there was a rumour they had escaped from an orphanage south of the city. The wealthy spinster they were now living with helped them run away one night through a drainage pipe, and took them to live in one of the 1940s mansions that still survived in the neighbourhood around the school. Most of them had been pulled down or converted into car workshops, but the house where the Cuervos lived was just as it had always been, with its lofty English appearance. Others said they were her legitimate grandsons, flesh of her flesh, but that every weekend she chained their hands and feet, locked them in the basement, and only gave them wheat broth and stale bread to eat. That’s why they smelled so badly when they came to school on Mondays, it was said. The most dreadful aspect of the whole thing was imagining them having to eat that thick soup, that slimy gruel we all hated when it was served up in the school canteen. Some boys even said the dungeon they were kept in communicated directly with the basements in Avenida Jiménez, the ones near the spot where Gaitán was killed, and that his real killer had escaped through them. I myself invented the rumour that the younger one suffered from a strange illness which meant he could only see in black and white, and that was why his eyes were wrinkled like prunes. Nobody liked that one. So I invented a syndrome which gave him convulsions and made him clasp his balls if he spent too long in the open air. That explains why he never plays football, I said, to clinch the argument.

[. . .]

One of the more sinister rumours had it that when the drug traffickers began exploding car bombs, the brothers used to go to the scene of the explosion and take photos of the burned-out wrecks, the buildings with shattered windows, the mutilated, wounded, and even of the dead bodies. Although no one at school ever saw these photos, I discovered them one evening when they left me alone in their second-floor library. They had classified them in different folders. There were some of the bomb at the El Espectador newspaper office, and the DAS security headquarters, others of the one in the Quirigua neighbourhood, or at the Carulla supermarket on 127th Street in 1990, close to my auntie’s house. I remember that last one very well. It was a Sunday, Mother’s Day. The bomb went off an hour after we bought a cake with confectionery roses on it in the shopping mall where the bombed supermarket was. They also had photos of the bomb at the 93 Centre. It was dreadful to imagine them catching a bus to the scene of the explosion, then standing there in the midst of the tragedy, calmly taking photos. I calculate that when the DAS bomb went off they must have been thirteen and fifteen, if that. And now I come to think of it, when the school put into practice an evacuation plan in case of an attack – the son of an army officer who was at loggerheads with a drug baron was studying with us – the Cuervo brothers started carrying gas masks in their satchels. Diego and I saw them and asked where they had got them. They said their grandmother had bought the masks in the flea market. As extravagant as ever, Zorrilla assured everyone they must have belonged to their grandfather.

The first time I went to their house, the grandmother received me in a small reception room that was obviously for brief, informal visits.

Subscribe. Receive free issue. That is all.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although it hasn’t been covered in the U.S. papers (at least to the best of my knowledge), Argentine author Rodolfo Fogwill passed away at the end of last month. He published a ton of stuff in Argentina—around 20 books—but only one—Malvinas Requiem—has been published in English translation. Typical situation, but this really blows. Malvinas Requiem is a really incredible book . . . Didn’t get much play here in the States (again, typical; again, really blows), but you can read my review of it here.

Anyway, the Guardian has a great piece on Fogwill written by Nick Caistor, who, along with Amanda Hopkinson, translated Los Pichiciegos into English. Whole obituary is worth checking out, but here are a few awesome highlights. (Which will likely make at least some of you want to read more about Fogwill):

Loud-mouthed, provocative, often downright rude, the writer Rodolfo Fogwill was a legendary figure in recent Argentinian literature. Fogwill, who has died aged 69, from pulmonary emphysema, probably exacerbated by his inveterate chain-smoking, quarrelled with everybody, was intolerant of any writing or behaviour that in his view smacked of political correctness or pretension, and yet wrote some of the most resonant short stories and novels in Argentina of the past 30 years.

The story surrounding the way he wrote one of his most important novels, Los Pichiciegos (1983), is typical. The book was a protest at the horror of the war fought between Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland islands in the South Atlantic, and at the stupidity of war in general. Fogwill claimed to have written the book in six days during June 1982, while the war was still going on, keeping himself going with vast amounts of cocaine and whisky. [. . .]

Born in Bernal, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Fogwill tried to convince me his surname was English, claiming he had ancestors in Fox Hill, in Sussex. An only child, he studied medicine and sociology at the University of Buenos Aires. He began teaching there, but fell foul of the military regime that took power in 1966. “I was sacked for being a communist, the worst insult imaginable for the Trotskyist I was at the time.”

This reversal took him into the world of advertising, where, he claimed, he made and lost several fortunes. His work again caused him problems during the military dictatorship at the end of the 1970s, when the authorities accused him of sending a subliminal message to a banned leftwing group in a TV commercial he had produced. The authorities closed his bank accounts and arrested him for “economic subversion”. Thrown into jail, he could not pay his debts, and so eventually was tried for fraud.

Which led him to become a writer! And a brilliant one at that.

His pronouncements on literature were always trenchant: “To write seems to me easier than trying to avoid the feeling of meaninglessness that not writing brings”; or “Literature doesn’t tell stories, but ways to tell stories”.

I can’t figure out why Malvinas Requiem isn’t listed on the Serpent’s Tail site . . . I think it’s still in print (came out like two years ago, so one would hope), and it’s definitely worth checking out.

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 . . .

1 November 07 | E.J. Van Lanen |

In selling literature in translation, there’s always a joke/fear that readers won’t pick up a book by an author whose name they can’t pronounce. Or if they do, that they’ll struggle dealing with names and places that are unfamiliar, with too many consonants, that are obviously foreign.

Rodolfo Fogwill’s Malvinas Requiem has a similar, yet different problem—my guess is that most U.S. readers have no idea what “Malvinas” might signify, and although “Falkland Islands” might help clarify, the Falkland War is not something frequently studied in our not-very-top-notch public school system.

Which is a shame, since Fogwill’s book is quite remarkable, deserving of the Catch-22 comparison in the jacket copy, and a very interesting, literary “war book” that is both localized and universal in its themes.

Just to refresh everyone’s memory, the Falklands War was fought in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the disputed Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands. Argentina invaded in March, lost the war in June. About 250 Brits died in the war, and about 650 Argentines. What’s also worth noting—at least in regards to Argentina—is that this war fueled the growing protests against the Argentine military government, leading to its collapse.

Against this backdrop, Fogwill tells the story of the “dillos” (short for armadillo), a group of Argentine deserters who are living inside a cave, trading goods with both the British and Argentine armies, trying to survive the conflict.

Each newcomer was told: the Kings are in charge here, they’re the ones who started everything. The Sergeant started it all. The Sergeant had got together the Turk, Quique and Viterbo, when they began to dig the trenches. He had lined them up in front of him, grabbed them by the lapels, gave them a shaking, and asked:

‘Are you arseholes or what?’

‘Yessir!’

‘No! You lot aren’t arseholes, you lot are the smart ones. Are you smart?’ he’d screeched.

‘Yessir. Yes, Sergeant,’ the three replied.

‘Well then,’ the Sergeant said to them. ‘Here’s what you do. Go further up,’ he pointed at the mountain, ‘and dig there.’

He explained that the trenches were useless. Headquarters had designed them, drawn them on a map. He said that when it rained those trenches would flood, and that everyone would either drown or freeze like idiots, and that the smart ones should go and start digging in the mountainside, without a word to anyone.

The dillos, firmly established in their Warren, with a pack of smokes a day for everyone, and plenty of food (from giving away strategic info to the Brits), joke, talk politics, and create a livable community. But the war is always raging on in the background, and Fogwill has a tremendous ability for switching from more light, casual writing to something more jarring and violent. The use of the second-person in this passage works particularly well to disrupt the reader’s sense of comfort.

On the islands the sheep run and jump about more than the dogs do. They leap over a wire fence as if it were nothing to them: just raise their forelegs and jump. Now the human observes the sheep from a way off and thinks: ‘What a fucking stupid animal: the best it can manage is to run off!’ He carries on observing her for a while, having nothing better to do, while waiting for real night to close in, so he can return to the Warren. All of a sudden there’s a flash of light: boom! Beneath the sheep’s hooves lay a mine and when she trod on it, there was a blinding flash of fire as through the sun had suddenly risen. You could see the whole sheep suspended in mid-air. She pulls in her legs, turns her head, and looks backwards, twisting her head as if she had the neck of a giraffe. She’s flying through the air, and it’s only then that the human, at the very same instant, hears the sound of a mine exploding, blown apart by the sheep.

And expanding from an individual act of random destruction is the group chaos:

When the other sheep—if there are any—hear this, and see what happened to their mate, they stampede in the opposite direction. Instead of remaining quietly on their own, they herd together, before all rushing off as one. That’s the big mistake, because as soon as the next flash of light occurs—meaning another landmine has gone off—another sheep flies into the air like a toy animal then disintegrates, and the ten or twelve other stupid sheep around her also jump and, too far from the explosion to be blown apart, still drop down dead with their muzzles flat on the ground, after struggling in vain to get up again.

In many ways, this is a nasty, disturbing book. The reader’s comfort is constantly provoked, building up to a rather horrifying conclusion. This is much more than a war novel though, and the construction of the novel is quite interesting. As the reader finds out towards the end, the author of the book is writing it based on tapes of conversations with the dillos. Which leads to an interesting artistic question—this novel first came out 1983 and was written right after the war, when there wasn’t a lot of widespread information about what had actually happened on the islands, yet according to others, Fogwill’s descriptions are remarkably accurate, and insightful, which is one of the reasons this book is credited with helping fan the anti-military fires in Argentina.

And today, twenty-five years later, the book is definitely still work reading. The translation is fantastic—Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson always do a wonderful job—and the book is interesting on so many levels, even if you have no idea where the Falkland Islands are located.

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