Over the past few days, a few great reviews for Open Letter authors popped up online, all of which are worth sharing and reading.
As a book of drinking, endless binges of drinking, and of constant comedy, The Last Days of My Mother is a perfect book to drink to, reminding you of the shame that follows the pleasure, but comfortably letting you know that you aren’t drowning like the protagonists. In the opening pages, Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s two protagonists, Mother/Eva and son/Trooper, do not have the same self-censorship that most of us have, and their adventure is all the better for it. Neither seems to manage happiness, but with Eva dying, Trooper sets himself the goal “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” [. . .]
Their efforts only resemble plans because for the vast majority of the novel, they are in varying stages of drinking, drunk, very drunk, stoned, and planning their next drink. Throughout it all, there is dark, brutal comedy, hysterically playful comedy, and immediate switches to the serious, the poignant, without pain from whiplash. The emotional, the ongoing sadness of loss, of dead hopes, isn’t a contradiction to humor; instead they exist together, and the closer they come, the less Eve and Trooper struggle. Comedy, with all its nuances, is sometimes impossible to communicate between two people who speak the same language, so translator Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir keeping it so alive proves great skill. Last Days is a book funny enough that my housemates laughed at my laughter while otherwise quietly reading, without reading a word.
Drinking novels are familiar, death of a family member novels are familiar, dark comedies, familiar, but Last Days brings something new: a mother and son with absolutely zero boundaries between each other.
The Last Lover is not an easy read. But it is incandescent and engrossing if you are okay with losing your sense of self for a few hours. Here is how I experienced it.
Hour one: I sit in a coffee shop with a paperback copy and a cup of ginger tea. The prose is dense, peculiar. The characters are given to sudden declarations.
Hour two: I am astonished to realize that I have only read less than fifty pages.
Hour three: My head hurts. I feel like I have been translating. I have stopped tweeting.
Hour four: I succumb to the book. I let it carry me. My cup is empty. I do not question anything that happens in the novel: wolfish faces; floating couples; inexplicable transformations; the motif of heads separating from bodies and hovering there, as if still connected. Nor do I question the characters’ reactions, who take all of these surreal developments gamely, as they must, as we accept the eerie faces we sometimes see in the periphery of our vision.
Hour five: I sit up and feel as though I have emerged from dreaming. I look around myself surreptitiously, suspicious that the world has flipped over while I was reading. It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same. I feel betrayed. There is a scene in The Last Lover in which the characters enter a gambling city, which is both under- and aboveground. The tunnels underground are full of smoke, which all the residents of the gambling city are used to breathing. Where is my smoke? Where are my slot machines?
And over at “Numero Cinq,“http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/08/04/the-decomposition-of-continuous-movement-review-of-juan-jose-saers-la-grande-richard-farrell/ Richard Farell writes up Juan José Saer’s La Grande, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph:
Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.
In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Parana River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel. [. . .]
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.
Over at Numéro Cinq (“A Warm Place on a Cruel Web”) there’s a great feature on Scars by Juan José Saer, a book that I recently claimed in an interview was my “favorite Open Letter book ever.” (And which I qualified by saying that my mind will change by the time the interview is over . . . My book love is 100% fickle.)
In terms of the features Richard Farrell put together, first off, there’s an excerpt from the novel itself:
Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined. Once in a while it could change, but it felt more solid than the crazy mayhem of the dice in the shaker, better than the blind senselessness of their flight before they came to rest on the green felt. My heart would tumble more than the dice when I shook the cup and turned it over the table. You can’t bet on chaos. And not because you can’t win, but because it’s not you who wins, but the chaos that allows it.
In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me. That’s what I felt whenever I shook the dice. In baccarat, my eyes could follow every movement the dealers made as they shuffled the cards and reinserted them into the shoe. First they would spread them out over the table, and then stack them in piles organized in three or four rows. They’d combine all the piles into a single column, two hundred and sixty cards, five decks in all, and drop them into the shoe. Then the game would start. First you had to think about the cards in the shoe. In baccarat, when the player is dealt a five—made up of a face card and a five, a three and a two, a nine and a six, or any other combination—he can choose whether or not to hit in order to improve his score. If the player hits, the entire makeup of the shoe changes. Before, I said that in baccarat I had a predetermined past. But it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future. Objectively speaking, the cards in the shoe are actually a past. For me, ignorant of their arrangement, they become the present and then the past as they are dealt, two at a time. At that point they become the future. And the player’s decision when he lands a five—hitting or standing—changes the cards. But the present is necessary for that change to take place.
Then there’s a review:
A good novel does much more than communicate the events of a story. A good novel also reflects on itself. It dabbles a bit in theory, considers genre and rediscovers form. The well-written book, what John Gardner once called the ‘serious novel,’ borrows from the traditions of the past and gestures toward the future, often in destabilizing ways. A good novel refuses simplistic labeling because it relentlessly stalks the nature of things and, in so doing, it helps resuscitate the very reason we read (and write) in the first place: to render some insight into the ineffable, to close the gap between perception and thought, to diminish the emptiness between the world we experience and the world we feel. [. . .]
Juan José Saer’s novel Scars might well qualify as such as work. Set in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina, the novel is divided into four long sections, each narrated by a different character. Holding these disparate parts together are the events of May 1, Workers Day, a day when Luis Fiore, his wife and young daughter go duck hunting. It’s almost wintertime in the southern hemisphere, and a steady cool rain makes the hunting trip more dread than delight. Fiore and his wife argue all day, but Fiore bags two ducks anyway. He drives back into town, drops his daughter off at home and then stops in at a local pub with his wife. Inside the dingy bar, the ongoing argument between Fiore and his wife — an unnamed character with the mildly derogatory moniker Gringa—escalates. Fiore steps outside, points his shotgun in his wife’s face and pulls the trigger.
Part bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part Robbe-Grillet existentialist romp through a South American landscape, Scars refuses to be any one thing. The easiest comparison of its structure is with the game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). In the game, as in the novel, a single event is recounted by various witnesses, each with his own version. As the game and the novel unfold, the various perceptions skew the seemingly objective facts. What has been witnessed changes. As Joyce does with his theory of parallax, Saer shakes the reader’s sense of certainty. What is true? What really happened? It all depends on the position and inclination of the observer.
Finally, Richard also has an interview with translator Steve Dolph:
RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?
SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.
RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?
SD: The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence. It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.
Definitely worth checking out all of these posts, Scars itself, Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover’s fiction and The Attack of the Copula Spiders.
Back when I was at Dalkey, we published a fantastic short story collection entitled Bad News of the Heart by Douglas Glover. The stories in there are touching, very funny, and incredibly well-crafted. Douglas went on to “win the Governor General’s Award“http://www.canadacouncil.ca/prizes/ggla/kf127248822388593750.htm for his novel Elle, and although we didn’t publish that novel, Dalkey did do his book on the Quixote, The Enamoured Knight. Douglas was great to work with, and you should definitely read his books.
We’ve been in touch off and on over the years, most recently concerning his new project, Numero Cinq, which started as “a reading, discussion and resource site for a small group of Douglas Glover‘s friends and Vermont College of Fine Arts writing students” and has grown into something much bigger.
Here’s a bit on the origin of the name:
The name for the blog comes from DG’s short story “The Obituary Writer” in which story the hero, based loosely on the author as a young newspaperman, harasses a distraught neighbour who lives in the apartment across the hall by making loud noises in the night and pretending to be a member of a sinister terrorist group called Numéro Cinq.
In addition to all that, recently Douglas ran “Gregor,” a short story by Quim Monzo appearing in the forthcoming Guadalajara. Also one of my favorites in the book. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s the opening:
When the beetle emerged from his larval state one morning, he found he had been transformed into a fat boy. He was lying on his back, which was surprisingly soft and vulnerable, and if he raised his head slightly, he could see his pale, swollen belly. His extremities had been drastically reduced in number, and the few he could feel (he counted four eventually) were painfully tender and fleshy and so thick and heavy he couldn’t possibly move them around.
What had happened? The room seemed really tiny and the smell much less mildewy than before. There were hooks on the wall to hang a broom and mop on. In one corner, two buckets. Along another wall, a shelf with sacks, boxes, pots, a vacuum cleaner, and, propped against that, the ironing board. How small all those things seemed now—he’d hardly been able to take them in at a glance before. He moved his head. He tried twisting to the right, but his gigantic body weighed too much and he couldn’t. He tried a second time, and a third. In the end he was so exhausted that he was forced to rest.
He opened his eyes again in dismay. What about his family? He twisted his head to the left and saw them, an unimaginable distance away, motionless, observing him, in horror and in fear. He was sorry they felt frightened: if at all possible, he would have apologized for the distress he was causing. Every fresh attempt he made to budge and move towards them was more grotesque. He found it particularly difficult to drag himself along on his back.
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