This match, the first of the tournament, was judged by Lori Feathers, a freelance critic and Vice President of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriFeathers.
I cannot think of a better way to kick-off the Women’s World Cup of Literature than a match-up between these two impressive novels: Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano and Switzerland’s With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz.
While in many respects these two novels are as different as the two countries from which they come, reading them in close succession reveals a common theme—what happens when an insular, primitive people are confronted with progressive thoughts and ideas from the outside.
With the Animals is the story of Paul and his wife Vulvia (or “Vulva” (!) as she is called) who live with their six children on the family farm in the French-speaking countryside of Switzerland. Paul is nothing short of crude in his relations with his wife and children. He devotes his life to running the farm and demands work, obedience, and docility from his family, along with occasional sex from Vulva. His behavior towards his children fluctuates between harsh discipline and total indifference, and he feels no remorse about delivering daily blows to both Vulva and the kids. Paul hires a summer farmhand from Portugal, Jorge, who comes to live on the farm and in many respects becomes more of a husband and father to Paul’s wife and children than Paul himself. Jorge (or Georges as Paul calls him) does things that Paul would never do like engaging in conversations with Vulva, teaching the kids, and cooking meals when Vulva is ill.
Paul’s voice, one that will stay with me for a long time, is coarse with distain, paranoia and misogyny and only rarely is it softened by the tender feelings he reserves for his cows and the memory of his deceased father. It is a credit to both Ms. Revaz and translator W. Donald Wilson that Paul always feels original and authentic, never a caricature.
Dark Heart of the Night takes place amongst the Bantu tribe in southern Cameroon. The tribe is locked in the vice of tradition and attitudes that elevate survival of the tribe above all else. Ayané is the daughter of a deceased tribesman and a “foreign” woman from a neighboring village. Neither Ayané nor her mother were ever accepted by the tribe but because both are considered witches they were tolerated even after the death of Ayané’s father for fear that they might cast an evil spell on the tribe. Ayané was always treated differently from the other children in the tribe; her parents sent her away to be educated and she eventually enrolled in college in Paris.
During Ayané’s return to care for her dying mother the tribe is overtaken by rebels seeking young men to recruit for a violent overthrow of the government. Ayané witnesses with incomprehension the docility and fatalism of the tribal members in the face of killings and other brutal acts by the rebels against the tribe’s members, including its children. She struggles to reconcile her relationship to the tribe and to come to terms with what the tribe means for her self-identity. Ayané has spent most of her life rejecting and being rejected by, the tribe. And with her mother’s death she can leave the tribe behind, forever. But for the first time she feels the need to belong, to identify with something larger than herself. Ayané’s inner conflict between her tribal and cosmopolitan “selves” forces her to question her Western ideas about the intrinsic nature of morality and reconsider whether the tribe’s actions when faced with the rebels’ brutality, were immoral. It is in looking at this conflict between Western and tribal ideas of morality that Ms. Miano’s novel excels.
I really admired both of these books and hate to see either eliminated but, as they say, the games must go on! With a tied score of 1-1, Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night squeaks-by to defeat Switzerland’s With the Animals by a penalty kick.
Next up, Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night will face off against either Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (Japan) or Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío (Ecuador) on Wednesday, June 24th. Tomorrow’s match is one of the most anticipated, with France’s Apocalypse Baby squaring off against Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft.
The other night I finally got around to watching Room 237, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a documentary about people obsessed with Kubrick’s The Shining and their various, often wacky, theories about what’s really going on in the movie. It’s absolutely fascinating, and not necessarily because of the interpretations. Sure, the one about how The Shining is Kubrick’s attempt to admit to having filmed the Apollo space landing is incredible—“he changed the room number from 217 to 237 because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth!”—and the ones analyzing the “magic window” and Danny’s three trips on his Big Wheel around the hotel are compelling and provocative, but the real joy of this movie is simply listening to how people make sense of things.
Talking about “high art” as “high art” is always a dicey prospect, so I’ll dive right in: to me, real “art” fucks with your mind and expectations and forces you to see new patterns, to try and analyze what it is that’s happening, since what’s happening isn’t at all what you’re used to. This goes beyond content and plot and character, and is more about the form and style of a particular book/movie/piece of music. Great art feels “new” and leaves the impression that there’s some pattern just beneath the surface . . . (Which is maybe why I love Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49 so much?)
To me, that’s what’s going on in Room 237. I don’t give a shit about the theories themselves—some are more believable than others—but the way in which the obsessives puzzle things out is simply incredible. That’s the real joy of this movie—having the chance to see how someone else’s mind works when they’re presented with an object that doesn’t quite fit preconceived ideas. (Which is why I think Kubrick’s assistant totally missed the point when he said, “There are ideas espoused in Room 237 that I know to be total balderdash.” No shit! and/or DUH.)
This kind of experience—of analyzing, of feeling like “there was something going on that I wasn’t seeing . . . yet”—can only happen when a creator (or team of creators) creates something and then hands it over to the public.
By contrast, check this post on Mashable about self-publishing and the modern advantages of serializing your work (in contrast to writing a full novel and then giving it to readers):
Allen Lau, CEO and cofounder of Wattpad, credits [Abigail] Gibbs’ choice to serialize [The Dark Heroine, which sold for six-figures to HarperCollins after they examined her sales on the Wattpad self-publishing platform] as “one of the key factors of her success.” With the traditional publishing method, he explains, it can often take two or three years before a book lands in readers’ hands, but serialization short-circuits that. “As soon as you finish that first chapter, you can post it [online] and start to generate a fan base, start to generate excitement.” [. . .]
The opportunity for readers and writers to directly connect marks a real shift from the established relationship between the two typical publishing parties.
“The readers don’t just read the story in a read-only mode; they participate in the content creation process,” says Lau. “Some of the comments can absolutely influence the storyline. This type of collaborative content creation and crowd participation simply and structurally doesn’t exist in the traditional system.”
Thanks to the class I teach in the spring semester—and the fact I make my students give presentations on some of my favorite authors, tying them into one another, creating a network of influences and influencees—I’ve been thinking a lot about “literary movements” and how there doesn’t seem to be the same drive to articulate new forms of storytelling as there was in the twentieth century . . . except maybe in terms of digital things.
It seems that digital believers—by which I mean the people who articulate reasons why digital forms of creation and distribution will help them make bank, and those who feel like writers should take full advantage of the possibilities of digital to make a truly multimedia text—are the vanguard of new narrative forms. Which, I have to say, leaves me feeling empty.
I don’t care so much about the technocrats who look to everything digital to find “disruptions” to “legacy publishers” so that they can find a new way to make lots of money and get themselves a smidgen closer to the 1% . . . I’m just not one of those people. I wish I could afford child care and an endless supply of wine, but I can’t, and I’m happy spending all my disposable income on graphic novels and cable packages that allow me to watch soccer matches. I personally don’t feel a drive to have more than that.
It’s the aesthetic techies who frighten me. “People Powered Publishing”? Books that are crafted based on feedback? I’m all for more interactions between authors and publishers and readers, but this reeks of giving people a variation on what they want. (I just looked at the comments for a random Wattpad story and they’re way worse than I expected. My favorite is “everything repeat the samr chapter. my part favorite is whatever school, whatever class.”) Although I read my fair share of books that are simply entertaining and not “artistic,” I hope that future writers will continue to produce things—like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining and whatever—that upend my expectations and make me feel like I’m missing something . . .
The Panda Theory and A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Gallic Books and Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)
I finished The Panda Theory last week, and am now ready to go on a Garnier bender. Which is fortuitous, since Gallic Books is bringing out four of his books in U.S. this year. I could explain what I liked about this novel, but really, I think this bit from Garnier about why he became a writer should do it:
That’s when the wife and baby came along. All around me, the faithful companions I’d met along the way were nestling back into their kennels, burying their dreams and delusions like bones to gnaw at in years to come when they were old and toothless. Rebelling against such mass surrender, I threw myself into rock and roll—and landed with a resounding thud. I was no better at being a pop star than I was at being a dad. Still, it was writing my pitiful ditties that gave me a taste for words. Deep down, I harboured a wild dream of writing something longer, something like a book. But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced, remarried, dabbled in design for women’s magazines, took on odd jobs, got up to the occasional bit of mischief. In short, I was killing time, frittering my life away. The boredom of my childhood numbed me once again with the sweetness of a drug. I was thirty-five.
“But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced . . .” It’s an indisputable fact that divorce improves two parts of your life, one of which is your creativity.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (FSG)
I really want to like Villalobos. He’s young, he’s Latin American, he includes bits about alien abductions in his books . . . But there’s just nothing there in my opinion. This novel, and Down the Rabbit Hole, are technically fine, but they don’t create new patterns . . . instead they feel a bit pandering. A bit thin.
Actually, and I write this despite knowing that so many people I respect love his works, I feel like the “rage” that Neel Mukherjee writes about in the intro to this novel rings a bit false. As a reader, I find the rage of Villalobos’s characters to be of the “look, I’m raging, and I’m funny, look at me!” sort. Toothless.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceava, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (Twisted Spoon Press)
I just received this in the mail the other week, and I have two things to say about it: Bogdan did his Ph.D. in math at Michigan State University around the same time I was there (although I did no Ph.D., and my idea of being good at math is schooling my daughter on long division), and thus he’s automatically the greatest Romanian author of all time (Go Spartans! Just please god go further in the tournament than Syracuse, because, fuck Syracuse); and secondly, Twisted Spoon Press is the most underrated press in the world dedicated to producing high-quality works of international literature. Also, fuck Syracuse. More on that below.
Efina by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the Swiss French by David and Nicole Ball (Seagull Books)
Revaz’s With the Animals was longlisted for the BTBA the other year, which is why I personally was so excited to find out that Seagull was bringing out another of her books. With the Animals was one of the most incredibly misogynist books I’ve ever read. There is no way that sentence comes out right. If you read the link above, you’ll know what I mean, but in short, With the Animals focuses on a narrator who is pure shit. Total woman-despising asshole. Whose literary voice is incredible. Efina promises letters from two characters who write “often to express their intense dislike of each other”! I can’t wait; people who believe you should only enjoy novels if you like the characters should run and hide.
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Yale University Press)
Willsconsin has translated a bunch of Rodrigo Rey Rosa stuff, and the fact that Will is into him has me convinced that I should read this. Plus, covers of girls in bookstores are an automatic yes for me.
Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin)
Last week, Jonathan Wright settled his case with Random House regarding his translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Europe, which Al Aswany deemed shitty for the most insane of reasons. I have a student from Yemen in my classes this year, and he was BLOWN AWAY by Al Aswany’s bullshit (my word) reasons for claiming Jonathan Wright shouldn’t translate his books. Thing is, as a publisher, every time you’re all “authors are the worst! They make this job so fucking intolerable!” a translator will jump up and want a terrible author photo on the cover of a poetry book.
Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
Even if I’ve written it here before, it’s worth repeating a million times: JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS is the greatest name to pronounce aloud ever. If you add a faux-Portuguese accent. Which may sound a bit sinister. But friendly sinister. I spent a week in Brazil repeating Machado de Assis’s name to everyone I met. It’s a wonderful icebreaker.
Encyclopedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books)
This weekend, I took my kids to see the Lego Movie. (Or however you italicize that. Seriously: trademarks are confusing to me when they become commercial pieces of art.) It was pretty awesome (I’ve never seen my son smile like that, which is so happy making), but what was equally awesome was hearing a “dorky” (your words, not mine!) high school boy say this in line behind me:
I know we’re seeing the Lego Movie, but Vampire Academy? A movie with hot high school girls AND vampires? It has ALL the things I think about.
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated from the Russian by Ross Ufberg (New Vessel Press)
Moldova! The first book I’ve ever seen from Moldova!
Aaron’s Leap by Magdalena Platzova, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens (Bellevue Literary Press)
Bellevue Literary Press reminds me of Erika Goldman which reminds me of her friend Dubrakva Ugresic, whose Europe in Sepia you should all be buying and reading. Dubrakva is awesome and witty and poignant and a genius; Erika is awesome and quick-witted and fucking brilliant. Just buy both books: If Erika chose to publish it, you know it’s amazing.
Also, she’s not a Syracuse University fan (I think?) (and is it the University of Syracuse? I get confused about second-rate programs. BASH.), which means she automatically knows more about college basketball than half of upstate New York and more than 90% of everyone in Rochester. Sorry, Otter Lodge (the “pub” where I watched the Syracuse-Duke game and was “informed” by multiple people that Duke University is in Chapel Hill. Which is it most definitely not), your bar sucks, and we will roll your indoor soccer team again.
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.
With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson
I wrote this one. Initially out of necessity—no one else snatched this one up—and a desire to read this “Céline-esque” novel, since I need a little more mud and anger in my life.
1. W. Donald Wilson’s introduction. Well, not specifically his introduction, which is fine in and of itself, but his articulation of the core problem in translating With the Animals:
In the original French, Paul [the narrator and protagonist of the novel, an uneducated farmer who smacks his wife around and can’t remember the names of his kids] lives in no specific place, nor does he use any particular form of speech or dialect: his idiom is an invented one. Of course many of the idiosyncrasies of his French are unavailable in English, such as his mangling of the more complex French negatives, his ease in inventing reflexive forms of verbs and his placement of adjectives before rather than after nouns (and vice versa). Also unavailable was his constant use of the impersonal pronoun “on,” used to create a greater impression of detachment and depersonalization than is allowed by its closes available English equivalent, “you.” I was therefore concerned to develop a voice that, while delivering that “slap in the face,” would not show any strained attempt to write incorrectly or distort the English language unnaturally, but would flow instead from Paul’s character and situation. Lacking any example or conventional usage to follow, Paul would have to improvise his language, resulting in a certain stylistic awkwardness. His word-order would be unconventional, reflecting the spontaneous order of his thoughts (for instance in the placement of adverbs or in stating the topic or subject of sentences first, as in Georges, he said). His use of conjunctions would be weak. Object pronouns would sometimes be omitted, and the definite article would sometimes occur where no article is normal in English. He would be uncertain of grammatical categories, confusing nouns, adjectives, and verbs. His grasp of verb forms, especially the verb ‘to be’ (as in there is + plural, or you/we/they was), and of pronouns would be unsure (as in me for I and them for those). Yet he would not use common dialect forms such as ain’t, and only occasionally employ double negatives.
In basic English, Paul don’t speak right. Which is really difficult to replicate . . . Seriously. Try writing incorrectly, yet coherently, for a paragraph. Then a page. Then 233. And as much as translation takes its cues from the original text, this is a massive act of creation on the part of Wilson.
2. This gambit of Wilson’s works. Right from the start, Paul’s voice is unique, strange, grammatically distorted, and, most important, interesting to read:
Before when I go out in the morning I’ve knocked back a good brimmer already and things fall together like straw. Till then I’ve a face like night on me and a garlic mouth and I can’t stand anyone wants to be coddled like a snot-nosed pup. Head under the tap and already I’m getting the machines out. Vulva, she’s still dragging round, she scrubs down in a corner and dries off in the kitchen.
3. Use of the term “brimmer.” I love neologisms and reappropriated words and slang that isn’t really slang because only a dozen people use it and none of them are Gawker. So “brimmer” is my new term for a full glass of “plum.” Sure, it’s 10:22 right now, but I CAN NOT WAIT to get home and fill some brimmers and knock them back.
4. Holy shitsnacks is this book offensive. All the Dalkey copy compares Revaz to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which, sure, I suppose so. Personally, I think that comparison is a bit broad—Céline wrote angry, narrator Paul is angry; Céline was insulting, narrator Paul refers to his wife as “Vulva”; Céline used a ton of ellipses, Revaz wrote in an untraditional way. That said, I think Revaz is up to something different—for one, her book isn’t written in a semi-autobiographical voice—and to reduce her to being “Céline-esque” feels reductive. But anyway, the hate and disgust Paul has for his wife and the world—not to mention the litany of insults and physical beatings he unleashes on “Vulva”—is pretty staggering. This isn’t a character you cuddle up next to and “relate to.” I like that. That’s a difficult thing to do well, to sustain for a whole book. Here’s an example from a point when Paul’s wife is in the hospital having a tumor removed:
What can you say to her, Vulva, when you never think of her? Me, in the end I’ve forgotten she exists, and what difference to me if she goes off to the hospital to have her belly sliced open or her varicose veins shrunk: I don’t give a rat’s fart, it doesn’t squeeze a single big tear out of me nor get the snot-rag out of my shirt pocket, so she can stay away there till the next century if that’s what she’d rather. At least it counts as much for me she’s not around no more to give her jeremiahs after us and go complaining at us every time we open a bottle or go on a wee binge.
5. Because Dalkey has yet to win the BTBA. Granted, this is a reason that goes beyond the text itself, but considering that Dalkey publishes more literature in translation than other publisher in the United States, they’re bound to strike gold at some point. And this book is both brilliant in and of itself, but also presents—and solves—a really fundamental translation challenge. For all these reasons, With the Animals by the Swiss author Noëlle Revaz should win this year’s Best Translated Book Award.
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