26 September 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by J.T. Mahany on Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated by Will Vanderhyden, and out next month from Open Letter.

Carlos Labbé was one of Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and has quickly become a Name to Know in the world literature sphere. Both Carlos and translator Will Vanderhyden, along with Andrés Numan, will be at the University of Rochester April 22nd for a Reading the World Conversation Series event. (If you’re in town then, definitely, definitely join us!)

Incidentally, Will (a.k.a. Willsconsin) and J.T. (who wrote the following review) were cohorts in the University of Rochester’s MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and not only brought to the table their skills as translators, but also brought amazing projects to the press (Open Letter will also be bringing out Labbé’s Locuela in a few years, in Will’s translation, and Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven in J.T.‘s translation next year).

Enough UROC and Open Letter promotion—all you really need to know is that if you’re a literary nerd boy or girl, Labbé’s work will be right up your alley. Here’s the beginning of J.T.‘s review:

Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .

The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on.

For the rest of the review, go here.

21 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I’m talking about pathological individuals; six twisted people taking part in an unpredictable game.

Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of scientists who are working on a top-secret project, and pass the time by collectively writing a novel about two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually, it’s about a group of friends playing a “novel game” in which they write a story via email based on the movements of pieces on a game board. Actually, it’s all three, equally true and untrue at the same time. The narrator is a scientist codenamed Domingo, except when it’s the conman Boris Real, except when it’s the alleged kidnapping victim Bruno Vivar, except when it’s the novelist, Labbé himself . . .

Do you remember how many times we discussed that Wittgensteinian way of looking at things? And how many times we talked about idealism? That objects don’t exist, dear Sabado, only words, which build and break, build and break.

The book is a compelling work of meta-fiction, and is rife with recurring images and motifs, such as theremins, Mormonism, and Edgar Lee Masters. These all form an intricate web to ensnare the reader in a synaptic echo chamber, where everything is connected but the reasons for the connections are never made entirely clear. The chapters of the novel are labeled 1-100, but most of the chapters are missing (the novel clocks in at just over 90 pages), implying that not everything has been or is going to be revealed. This withholding of information is also present in the internal monologues or thought processes of the handful of characters—not even the people who could best answer our questions, as readers, are going to give us a break and reveal (or explain) everything that’s going on. Like in the scene where Alicia is on the beach and encounters the journalist; we’re given information, but it doesn’t immediately appear to be of much help or use:

In that moment she should’ve begun telling him about the Vivar family, about her childhood, about Boris Real, the longing, Bruno, her father’s chemistry laboratory, the woman, the sirens, the hadón, the bloodless body of James Dean that’d given her nightmares until she was thirteen; yet all three of them sat in silence.

The most “coherent” plot of the novel consists of the wealthy Vivar family, and the disappearance of their two children, Bruno and Alicia, from the beach between the small towns of Navidad and Matanza, in Chile’s sixth region. An investigative journalist, who had recently done a human interest story on the Vivar family, tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but the most he can conclude is that the Vivar siblings abandoned their abusive parents to travel the country, accompanied by their uncle Francisco Virditti, or perhaps the investment banker Boris Real, or perhaps the Congolese thereminist Patrice Dounn. The mysterious experimental drug called hadón—said to cause intense feelings of hatred—might also be involved, or maybe it’s just a myth.

What makes Navidad & Matanza great is its ambiguity, its ethereal quality. By the end you wonder if you’ve even read a novel at all, or a jumbled collection of confused notes, or a set of disconnected events dictated by the rolling of dice. This short work makes you question again and again the reliability of its narrators, right down to their overlapping and multifaceted identities. It’s packed with clues, and definitely warrants a second read-through, which will only serve to bring out more tidbits you might not have noticed the first time around, bringing the myriad ends a little closer together. And yet . . . Do the connections between people, places, and things really exist, or is it only in your head? The question of what really happened lingers in the air, begging to be played with, but promising no concrete answers.

“Literature is a lie. Embrace the wind.”

27 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday, P. T. Smith’s insightful review of Chejfec’s new novel The Dark was published on BOMB’s website:

Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.

This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.

In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.

This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader.

Be sure and click here to read the full piece, and then read the book. It’s one of Chejfec’s best. (Which is saying a lot.)

26 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the past ten years, The Morning News hosts the Tournament of Books, a March Madness of sorts for works of fiction. Every bracket matchup is decided by a blogger/writer/critic/minor celebrity who picks between the two books on merit, readability, cover design, weight, other intangibles—whatever they want.

As a sucker for a) brackets and b) contests, I usually pay some attention to this every year. Or, I used to. Over the past few years, the “Sweet 16” titles have been overwhelmingly American. Which is fine, obviously, there are great American writers out there, but, well, at the same time, it just seems a bit provincial and lame.

SO. For this year’s Tournament—the 10th!—I’d like to see a few international works make it. More specifically I would give anything1 to get an Open Letter book into the competition.

Until December 2nd, The Morning News is accepting write-ins for the Long List of Potential Books via this Survey Monkey form..

If you click there and enter in one of the eligible Open Letter titles listed below, and then email me at chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu, I’ll give you a special gift code to use on our new website.2

Here are the titles that are eligible for this year’s Tournament of Books:

  • Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Personally, I think this one might have the best chance of making it.)
  • L’amour by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Kazim Ali and Libby Murphy
  • The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
  • 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
  • Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova, translated from the Bulgarian by Olga Nikolova
  • A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
  • High Tide by Inga Ābele, translated from the Latvian by Kaija Straumanis
  • Two or Three Years Later by Ror Wolf, translated from the German by Jennifer Marquart

Just choose your favorite, write it in, and email me at chad.post [at] rochester [dot] edu and I’ll give you some thanks.

1 That “anything” is capped at a $5 gift certificate to Open Letter’s website. Well, at least publicly . . . WINK, WINK.

2 More on the new site tomorrow morning when it is live, but it’s basically like the old site, only 100,000,000 TIMES COOLER. All the same products will be available, so if you’ve been holding out to buy a subscription, or waiting to get the First 50 Open Letter titles, or just want a copy of Death in Spring, you can get $5 simply by showing your love for our titles.

11 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Next year we’re going to be publishing Antoine Volodine’s Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven, a book that I’m super excited about, and which help explain (somewhat) Volodine’s crazy-awesome project. If you’re a regular listener to the “Three Percent Podcast”: you’ve probably heard me go on and on and on about how interesting Volodine’s work is—in particular, Minor Angels and We Monks & Soldiers, both of which are masterfully translated into English by Jordan Stump. (Also worth noting is Naming the Jungle, which New Press published way back, but which I have yet to read.)

As with everything Volodine does, that last statement needs to be unpacked. See, We Monks & Soldiers is written by Lutz Bassmann, one of Volodine’s heteronyms.

Actually, that’s not entirely true either. See, Volodine is a heteronym as well for a French schoolteacher who writes this truly weird, incredibly knotty, endlessly fascinating books under a host of heteronyms. He’s like the French Fernando Pessoa, but more obsessed with the apocalypse.

So, over the past twenty-some-odd years, Volodine, along with counterparts Lutz Bassmann, Elli Kronauer and Manuela Draeger, has written some 40 books (mostly novels, but also some young adult novels, and poetry, such as Bassmann’s Prison Haikus, which will make more sense in a second), many of which inhabit one shared universe. Of sorts.

I can’t claim to know nearly as much about Volodine’s wildly imaginative—and revolutionary—project as J.T. Mahany (author of this review of Bassman’s Les aigles puent and this one of We Monk & Soldiers, and is the translator of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven), but basically, in Volodine’s collective world, shit has gone wrong, or is just about to go horribly wrong. Humanity is on the decline, the spiders are taking over the interior, and capitalism—that dirty bitch—is still unstoppable and fucking is all up.

And all the post-exoticist writers are in jail. Dying.

What is post-exoticism exactly? Well, you can read our forthcoming book (of which I’ll post a sample in just a minute), but in short, it’s a literary movement that employs certain techniques to evade censorship, convey secret messages and ideas of thought, and change the world. In other words, it’s dangerous shit. Hence, the jailing.

To tie together a few of these threads: Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven is written by Volodine about Bassmann’s last days in prison. It explains a lot of the tenets and techniques of the post-exoticist movement (so far as they can be explained . . . for example, Lesson Five, “Let’s Talk about Something Else,” is a list of things the post-exoticists have and haven’t done. They make these long lists to deter the enemy . . .) and is a great starting point—or continuing one—for anyone entering Volodine’s world.

One interesting post-exoticist story: On the jacket copy of Minor Angels, it references the fact that Volodine doesn’t believe the meaning of the book can be found in the text itself, but rather in the dreams that the reader has while reading it. I’m prone to really strange shit entering my dreamstate, so this book was like LSD for my unconscious. But better yet: While J.T. was reading this book he woke up one winter night outside in his pyjamas having sleepwalked himself right out of his apartment. Unfortunate for him, this was a bittercold night and he had locked himself out. See! Dangerous shit.

Anyway, the main point of this post—aside from delaying the bookkeeping and database work that I should be doing right now, and giving me a chance to wax enthusiastic about one of my favorite forthcoming books—is that J.T. found the interview below with the three main Volodine heteronyms and I really wanted to share it.

Also worth noting: We’re planning on following up our Volodine book with a Bassmann one and Draeger one. Bassmann’s been published by the University of Nebraska, but Draeger has yet to be published by a nationally distributed press. Hopefully we’ll be able to do all three books within a 12-14 month window so that there’s not too much of a delay—once you get sucked into Volodine’s world, you’re going to want more . . .

Here’s the “interview,” which, to be honest, will make more sense if you’ve read Minor Angels, We Monks & Soldiers, and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven:

Your main character trait

Antoine Volodine: Stubbornness.

Lutz Bassmann: Rigidity.

Manuela Draeger: Passion. More exactly, the lucidity at the heart of passion.

Your favorite animal

Antoine Volodine: Tigers. But not paper ones. And also Iponiama Oshawnee, who lives at 17 rue des Soeurs-Tchouvanes, in Valkoumeï.

Lutz Bassmann: Robins. And also cats when they’re not eating robins.

Manuela Draeger: Elephants. No, actually, wooly crabs, trying to float as high as the moon. Or no, rather, eggs. Eggs in general. They’re the promise of an animal. Last but not least, Lili Niagara, the batte, with whom I used to be madly in love.

The defeat, historical or otherwise, you consider the worst

Antoine Volodine: The collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lutz Bassmann: The New Economic Policy instantiated by Lenin in 1921.

Manuela Draeger: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Your favorite slogan

Antoine Volodine: Two or three: DON’T DREAM UNSTRAGE DREAMS! IF MISFORTUNE ARISES, YOU MUST DIE APPROPRIATELY! YOU ARE A WINDOW PANE, NO FLY CAN IMAGINE YOU!

Lutz Bassmann: I will give several: GOLDEN DRUMS, THEN SILENCE! IF YOUR FACE IS CLEAR, CUT OFF YOUR MASK! IF THERE ARE STILL RUINS, DEMOLISH THEM! IF THERE ARE STILL CRUMBS, BURN THEM!

Manuela Draeger: I think I might give a few: BLACK WAVES, SCREAM, BREAK! CHANANES’S DAUGHTERS, SING, REGROUP, ATTACK! A THOUSAND SECRET MASTIFFS IN EACH ONE OF US!

Your most oft-recurring dream

Antoine Volodine: Flying while sitting like a fakir, but without a flying carpet, about fifty centimeters off the ground, at a hopelessly slow speed.

Lutz Bassmann: I am walking around a house on a deserted coast. It’s raining, I’m taking shelter under a giant umbrella. I make a complete turn around the house. I am silently exorcising it. From time to time, people that I know try to leave, through the windows, through the doors, but they collapse before they can get outside. I know the house is going to burn. No words are spoken. Everyone is terrorized, and I continue tracing circles as I walk in the damp grass.

Manuela Draeger: I am speaking with other prisoners, with dead friends. We are on the shore of a lake at daybreak. The vegetation is luxurious. The landscape is extremely beautiful. Instead of contemplating in silence, we talk. From time to time, one of us leaves our group and approaches some wavelets. She stays unmoving, petrified, then she returns and reintroduces herself into the conversation. We talk feverishly about a clinic where you can get memory transplats. The deabte is on the sorrow provoking the transplants. I don’t know why, we know we should stop and admire the water, the light, the trees, but we keep reluctantly chatting on subjects that don’t interest us.

Your favorite landscape

Antoine Volodine: The Hoggar Tassili.

Lutz Bassmann: An urban scene. For example Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong.

Manuela Draeger: The ice field when bears walk across it.

The ritual you would like to perform

Antoine Volodine: Knocking three times before opening the shutters.

Lutz Bassmann: The last cigarette.

Manuela Draeger: Does Bolcho Pride from Eleven Dreams of Soot count as a ritual? If so, I’d like to participate in it.

The quality you appreciate most in a combattant

Antoine Volodine: In a female soldier: her coming back alive. In a male soldier: his knowing to run when all is lost.

Lutz Bassmann: Silence after the battle.

Manuela Draeger: Knowing how to walk with eyes closed until the end. Knowing how to die, knowing how not to die. Knowing how to walk with eyes open until the end.

Your favorite hero or heroine in the real, historical, or fantastical world

Antoine Volodine: The stalker in Stalker.

Lutz Bassmann: Chow Yun Fat in The Killer.

Manuela Draeger: Louise in Thelma and Louise.

What you hate the most

Antoine Volodine: Hypocritical reformism, friendly nationalism, warrior nationalism, a speaker’s bad faith, bony fish, the Russian mafia, spiders.

Lutz Bassmann: The self-satisfaction of social democrats, capitalism in all its forms, the obscene insolence of traitors. Swallowing oysters. Hearing the prison guards’ antisemitic jokes.

Manuela Draeger: Barbarism. The imbecility of barbarians, their humanistic and democratic proclamations. And also dishes with chicken gizzards. And in literature when I’m thought of as a clone of Antoine Volodine.

The fault you indulge in the most

Antoine Volodine: Sympathy for sympathizers of the ninth stinking category (intellectuals).

Lutz Bassmann: Excessive severity towards enemies of the people.

Manuela Draeger: Assassinating assassins.

What keeps you from going mad

Antoine Volodine: Having seen madness up close. The pills they give me. I don’t know what they’re called.

Lutz Bassmann: [no response]

Manuela Draeger: The fear of going mad.

The music you would like to hear when you slide into the Bardo

Antoine Volodine: Naïsso Baldakchan’s Third Golden Song.

Lutz Bassmann: If there are musicians, I would like them to try to play a quartet by Brahms or Kaanto Djylas. If there is no one, I would like to hear Grodzo tapping on the pipes and grills.

Manuela Draeger: Like in Eleven Dreams of Soot, I would like to hear at the last minute the voice of the Soviet songstress Liudmilla Zykina. The song doesn’t matter, but one like the girls were listening to in the fire: a very melancholic, very simple song, of unspeakable beauty. The first two words in Russian are “Sronila kolietchko.”

The present state of your mind

Antoine Volodine: After having the idea to listen one last time to Naïsso Baldakchan’s Third Golden Song, I’m a little worried.

Lutz Bassmann: I’m waiting.

Manuela Draeger: I’m looking at the barred window, the sky darkened by twilight, and I’m thinking that I will never see the Aurora Borealis again.

27 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For anyone who’s not already a subscriber, click here to read the new issue of the Open Letter Newsletter.

And if you’re not a subscriber, you should definitely sign up now. It’s the best way to find out what’s going on with Open Letter, AND we’ve been giving away free books via the newsletter . . .

21 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.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz and published by Open Letter Books

BROMANCE WILL IS IN THE HOUSE.

Mikhail Shishkin’s debut English-language novel Maidenhair deserves to win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award because it is not only the best translated book in the best translation to have come out in English—it is the best book that came out in 2012, period. Accomplished translator Marian Schwartz has wrought a miraculous, beautiful, lyrical rendition of Shishkin’s unique poetic language that draws on the grandest narrative traditions of the nineteenth century classics and combines them with the living, breathing Russian language as it exists today.

Language itself, and the importance of the Word in life, love, and history, is at the heart of Maidenhair. The plot, or what semblance there is of a plot, centers on an unnamed interpreter who works for the Swiss immigration office, translating the horrific stories of would-be Russian immigrants describing why they deserve asylum in Switzerland to the interpreter’s boss, a figure described as Peter, guarding the gates of Heaven, determining who is able to enter Paradise within the Swiss borders. The interpreter is the axis on which the narrative magic of Maidenhair spins: he is a narrator who retells the stories of the asylum-seekers; a conduit for the historical stories he is reading about the Persian Wars; a doting father writing letters to his son, all addressed to “My dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!”; the son lives with his former wife, who in one thread travels to Rome with the narrator, only to have their marriage fall apart; he is a would-be biographer of a talented young singer in late tsarist, early Soviet period, Isabella Yurievna.

The stories all weave together in head-spinning fashion, the interpreter is the only connection between the separate narratives within the novel, though it takes a while for the reader to piece together how these stories are connected, as the characters’ philosophical monologues and asides demonstrate the grand themes Shishkin is working with. And that reminds me of Shishkin’s own words: that Maidenhair is not a novel to be understood, but rather to be felt; it is a novel that hinges less on plot than on the emotional resonance that connects each separate story. Schwartz handles the narrative shifts within Maidenhair with the grace of a prima ballerina, confident and even-keeled, even as the narration jumps from an early twentieth century language of the Petersburg intelligentsia to the coarse, brutal language of refugees who may or may not be fleeing violence and persecution in their home villages.

And to personally editorialize, to add an element of competition to why Maidenhair in particular deserves to win this year’s BTBA rather than any of the other extremely well-qualified works of translation: I can say in all honesty that Maidenhair is the best Russian novel to come out in English since Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita exploded into the world’s consciousness in the mid-1960s.

Like many others before me, I have suffered an unvanquishable love of Rusisan literature ever since I took a Nineteenth Century Russian Literature course my freshman year at university. And I love it all now, all Russian literature: the grand Russian novels of ideas, the linguistic and stylistic revolutionaries of avant-garde poetry, the mystical philosopher-authors exploring the outer reaches of human existence, the brilliant and brave souls who dared to describe the absurdity of totalitarianism, be it tsarist, Soviet, capitalist . . . but I had been feeling at times like I’d reached the end of the Russian rope, that I’d made my way through all the great Russian works, and all I had left to content myself with were forgotten little gems that slipped between the cracks of the great Masters; but all the while I kept hoping beyond hope that somehow, someway, a contemporary Russian author would emerge to re-engage me with the history of Russian literature, to give hope to the written word in ways I thought I’d never feel again, not since I was introduced to that towering genius of twentieth century Russian letters, Bulgakov (and how wonderful and how tragic it is to be introduced to true works of creative genius like Master and Margarita, wonderful to know greatness on such a level, tragic in the knowledge that such works of genius stand alone, once you meet them, you have drastically winnowed down the number of life-changing novels remaining to be discovered, and nothing can replace the joy of discovery, of opening a novel for the first time not knowing by the end that it would completely change your life, that you would become a different, more fulfilled human being by the time you closed that novel. And yes, you can re-read, revisit, re-engage with these classics, these works of creative genius, and you can develop a deeper relationship between the text and the characters and the author behind it all, but you cannot replace the joy that comes from that first reading, the joy of discovery).

Maidenhair is the novel I have been waiting for; a powerful, moving novel that combines everything I love about literature in general, the beauty of language, the power of ideas, the love of characters, the genius of the Author as Master. I believe in the ability of the written word to change and transform physical reality outside of the textual vessel. I know I am not alone in these loves, these beliefs, and I know now that Russian literature is alive and well in so many ways, for there is an author who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest of Russian writers in history, who can craft the most beautifully-woven novels of ideas, because I have read Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, and I was able to feel it all again, the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery, of a truly great work of literary fiction, as if for the first time.

It is no exaggeration to describe Mikhail Shiskin as the greatest living Russian writer. Shishkin is already renowned in Russia as the first author to win all three of the big literary awards there: the Russian Booker, the Big Book, and the National Bestseller. I read and fell in love with Maidenhair before Shishkin withdrew from the official Russian delegation to the 2013 Book Expo America, in effect making him a dissident author. And if there is one thing history has shown, it is that the West loves dissident Russian literature. Think of the Russians who have won the Nobel Prize: Ivan Bunin (the most underrated of the great Russian authors, won the Nobel in 1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970), Joseph Brodsky (1987)—all officially dissidents, yet all deserving for the quality of their writing, the eternal nature of their ideas. Even before his recent political stance, Mikhail Shishkin was a worthy candidate for future Nobel laureate, and the appearance of Maidenhair in English translation started generating Nobel buzz immediately. Some say it takes a few works in English to catapult an author to global status worthy of Nobel recognition: Maidenhair is Shishkin’s first novel to appear in English, published by Open Letter Books, while his second English novel, The Light and the Dark, will be published by Quercus in November 2013. Shishkin’s Nobel future is unknown, his present candidacy for BTBA is more clear. He deserves to win, Maidenhair is a book of uncommon, exceptional genius, and its win would reserve its rightful place as the best translated book of 2012.

If this piece doesn’t convince you that Maidenhair should win the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, or if you can’t be bothered to read a 900-word love letter to Maidenhair, take the advice of the brilliant booksellers at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, they say what I am trying to say in far fewer words, with their own style of poetic genius:

14 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.

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and published by Open Letter Books

This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.

Among the spate of excellent writing coming out of Argentina in recent years, Sergio Chejfec stands out. My Two Worlds, the first of his full-length works to be published in English translation (Open Letter), gave us a masterful match-up of digressive style with peripatetic narrator/flâneur which seemed a fitting heir to the Sebaldian tradition. The Planets, also published by Open Letter, and translated by Heather Cleary, whose sensitivity to the specific effects which Chejfec is hoping to achieve through his singular style is happily matched by her skill at rendering this in English, is in many ways a continuation of this aesthetic. In other words, it’s another slim yet weighty work straddling the border between the novel and memoir, all with a healthy dose of philosophical mediation.

Yet there is nothing dry or sterile about The Planets, shot through as it is with both the narrator’s understated grief over the “disappearance” of his childhood friend M in early 1970s Buenos Aires, and the dark undercurrents of tension and uncertainty which define that period of Argentine history. Written from the point of view of the narrator looking back on his childhood with M after he believes that the latter has been killed in an explosion, his attempts to bring the past (and thus his friend) back to life are held in check by the distancing effects of time on the intimacy of friendship.

The narrator’s many meditative digressions are in fact such an integral component to the movement of the narrative that to call them digressions seems a disservice, though this movement is more akin to the orbits of the titular planets than to the traditional forward march of a more plot-driven book. And the centre of gravity is M, an emotional centre from which the narrator’s mind jumps off into the philosophical, but to which these passages always swing back before becoming esoteric:

The real illusion that is space, or, more accurately, the confined, familiar city in which our reciprocal identity manifested itself, disappeared in M’s absence. There was no sense trying to recapture it through intermittent, inevitably anonymous, and more or less melancholy visits to his neighbourhood or the places we used to go because, unlike objects—which, like photos, can at any moment become talismans or relics—space has its own ephemeral hierarchy.

For me, it is precisely this abstract quality which somewhat paradoxically serves to strengthen the emotional force of the narrator’s childhold memories, whilst at the same time ensuring that these never descend into sentimental nostalgia. Reading the final few pages, I actually got pretty emotional. Without a doubt, The Planets would be a worthy winner—and I can’t wait to see what Chejfec will do next.

28 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This one is a bitter pill to swallow . . . Way back in July of 2010, I wrote a post about “The Next German Book I Want to See Translated” featuring this video:

Well, two-plus years later, on my birthday, Open Letter brought out Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, a unique, very readable book about three main characters: two who are present in the book and have a showdown at the middle, and a third, who is mostly off-screen, but whose maybe-falsified memoir about the Holocaust sets this conflict in motion.

One of the interesting things about Stein that I learned during his extensive U.S. reading tour—which was insanely successful, and demonstrated just how much this book connected with readers—was that he appeared at a reading, and knows personally, Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of the fake Holocaust memoir, Fragments, which inspired this novel.

At each of his events, Benjamin would talk about how he wrote this as a way to deal with the idea of Wilkomirski, who created a fake identity for himself—the man’s not even Jewish—and came to completely incorporate this into his worldview and consciousness. It is an intriguing set-up for anyone interested in psychology or the power of fiction, and one that’s explored marvelously (in my opinion) in The Canvas.

But alas. No Best Translated Book Award for Benjamin and Brian.

You should still buy the book though. It’s damn amazing, and captivating from cover to cover.

22 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Way back at the start of the year, I promised that this year’s ALTA would be “THE GREATEST CONFERENCE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE OF CONFERENCES.” Now, I’m not sure that was the case—although it was the most interesting ALTA I’ve ever attended—but it was awesome enough to get mentioned in the New York Times.

[A]mong the polyglots who convened this month in Rochester for the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association — where the topic was “The Translation of Humor, or, the Humor of Translation” — there is a sense of cautious optimism. At least some measure of levity, these dedicated professionals believe, must be able to migrate between languages. The French, after all, seem to appreciate Woody Allen.

“It takes a bit of creativity and a bit of luck,” said David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton, who, as he prepared his keynote speech for this year’s conference, confessed to finding a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning: “A pair of translators walk into a bar.”

(During the conference, Alex Zucker actually came up with a joke using that opening: “A pair of translators walk into a bar . . . (It was better in the original.)”)

The humor panels we had at the conference were pretty spectacular, especially one moderated by Open Letter editor (and U of R translation grad) Kaija Straumanis and featuring Emily Davis (fellow U of R translation grad), Matt Rowe, and Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich, translators of The Golden Calf. One of the reasons this panel worked so well was because of Kaija’s introduction, which centered around the different ways George Saunders’s “Pastoralia” is funny in English and in the German translation.

Might some funny bits actually get funnier in translation? In the title story of George Saunders’s “Pastoralia,” a character is paid to impersonate a cave man at a theme park, his employers providing a freshly-killed goat to roast daily, until one morning he goes to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Among the many possible renderings of this made-up word, Saunders’s German translator chose ziegenleer, a lofty-sounding melding of “goat” and “void” with no exact equivalent in English.

“The German translation is accurate, but the word combination tickles some kind of orthographical, sound-receptive funny bone,” explained the Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis, the editorial director for Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literature in translation press and one of the conference organizers. “The more high-minded you make it sound in your head, the funnier it gets, implying a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”

The whole article is worth reading—and thanks to Jascha Hoffman for writing such an informative piece about such an interesting topic.

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans on Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, which is translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.

Maidenhair will be available to purchase from our very own Open Letter Books on October 23, 2012.

Here’s part of Will’s review:

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Click here to read the entire review.

31 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour |

“Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.”

Contemporary Russian literature all too often falls into a ghettoized section of world literature that keep fans of translated and international literature from fully enjoying the best works of the last twenty years. One problem is a tendency for Western sources to focus on the political elements in a Russian text that inevitably denigrates the quality of the literature itself. At the same time, too many scholars of Russian literature place contemporary Russian literature into a different ghetto altogether, with the predominant sentiment in American universities being that great Russian literature died once upon a time with Bulgakov or Pasternak. This fact is, of course, 100% not true. Both of these problems keep Russian literature from its proper place in discussions of world literature. We appreciate so many of the Russian classics as above politics and existent outside of but wholly influenced by the passage of historical time, while their themes are inherently but subtly political as they discuss the contradictions and distortions in the daily realities of the Russian society that combine to make the stories so timeless and powerful.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is the type of novel that professors of Russian literature can hold up as a shining example in their classrooms that no, Russian literature is not dead (nor has it ever been), while those who might not know their Pushkin from their Shishkin can read and enjoy Maidenhair as a standalone work of literary brilliance; while at the same time the notoriously fickle American readers who might have read Anna Karenina when Oprah’s Book Club made their recommendation or stumbled upon and enjoyed Master & Margarita can sink their mindsteeth into Marian Schwartz’s incredible translation of Shishkin’s novel and marvel in the fact that Maidenhair harkens back to the great classic Russian novels of ideas in every way.

Since his first novel came out in 1994, Shishkin has won Russia’s three most prestigious literary prizes: the Russian Booker, the National Bestseller, and the Big Book. Despite his prodigious and award-winning talents, Maidenhair is his first novel published in English, and will be formally released on October 23, 2012 by Open Letter Books. Shishkin’s former day job was as an interpreter in Switzerland; and he splits his time these days between Zurich and Moscow – both facts play in to the characters in Maidenhair. He has previously taught for a semester at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, and is returning to the USA in spring 2013 to teach a seminar at Columbia and to give talks across the country relating to Maidenhair. The international nature of Shishkin himself plays in to the narrative structure of Maidenhair, as his characters inhabit positions across the globe and throughout history all at once; the émigré Russian writer of the past has given way to the globalized Russian writer of the 21st century, wherein borders are insignificant, the author is at once entirely Russian and at the same time entirely a global citizen.

At its core, Maidenhair is a novel of ideas that reads like a 21st-century Tolstoy, concerned with the big questions of life, death, love, and everything in between:

…here, in the trenches, people never talk out loud about the main thing. People smoke, drink, eat, and talk about trivial things, boots, for instance… (251)

Maidenhair is a novel that talks about the main things constantly: faith and spirituality; the importance of enjoying fleeting moments of beauty in the face of death; throughout, the quest for love, affection, and human ethics touches on every character, and make themselves apparent in philosophical dialogue, mythological references, and spiritual ruminations:

Life is a string and death is the air. A string makes no sound without air. (150)

Maidenhair is at the same time, like the great works of Russian literature, above politics and timeless. Its narrative grace and the power of its ideas would feel every bit at home in literary salons alongside Tolstoy and Chekhov 1902, though it was written a full century later.

To discuss the plot of Maidenhair feels vulgar. It is hard to describe and seemingly banal. But as Zakhar Prilepin (another incredible contemporary Russian author who is awaiting his first published translation in America) discussed at a recent Read Russia event at Book Expo America, the plots of the greatest works of Russian literature are all exceedingly banal: young man kills a pawnbroker and an investigation follows; a young woman cheats on her husband with a young officer. What makes these stories original is not their plot but the presentation of the author’s ideas and their critiques of social mores that exist at once across the globe. So it is with Maidenhair. The plot is, in fact, rather banal; four narratives are interwoven throughout the novel: stories told by Russian refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland to a Russian interpreter working for the Swiss government; the interpreter’s trips to Italy and his subsequent estrangement from his wife and son; letters written by the interpreter to his son, addressing him as an emperor of a far-off made-up land, all starting out with, “Dear Nebuchadnezzasaurus!” and incorporating elements of historical and mythological texts the interpreter is reading on his breaks from work; and diary entries written by an Isabella on whom the interpreter was supposed to write a biography, who the not-so-average Western reader might not know is the famous Russian singer of the first half of the 20th-century, Isabella Yurieva*.

The interpreter is the only character that ties the four narratives together. The reader lives inside the nameless interpreter’s head, with the narratives combining throughout as a mixture of things that he is reading at the time (a lot of mythology and classical history), things he is working on (including the diary entries and the extensive Q&A sections with asylum-seekers), and things he is doing (trips to Italy, writing letters to his son). The style is confusing to discuss, but easy to read, because Shishkin repeats the themes of humanity’s interconnectedness throughout history and fate.

You just have to understand destiny’s language and its cooing. We’re blind from birth. We don’t see anything and don’t pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel… (268)

Rather than discuss the plot structure and the “action” in the book, so as not to give away any of the brilliance in the text, it must be said that Maidenhair is a novel not to be understood (to use Shishkin’s own quote), but to be felt at every turn of the page, a novel to be processed as the narrative progresses, though the further you read, the less time matters, and you find yourself living inside a narrative world where everything is connected, and everything is happening all at once:

Before I just couldn’t understand how all this could be happening to me simultaneously, but I am now, loupe in hand, and at the same time I’m there, holding him close and feeling that I’m about to pass out, dying, I can’t catch my breath. But now I understand that it’s all so simple. Everything is always happening simultaneously. Here you are writing this line now, while I’m reading it. Here you are putting a period at the end of this sentence, while I reach it at the very same time. It’s not a matter of hands on the clock! They can be moved forward and back. It’s a matter of time zones. Steps of the dial. Everything is happening simultaneously, it’s just that the hands have gone every which way on all the clocks. (497)

Shishkin has declared in Russian-language interviews that Maidenhair is a novel about everything, and in more recent novels he attempts to solve humanity’s crisis of life and death. Maidenhair is no different.

This is what I believe: If somewhere on earth the wounded are finished off with rifle butts, that means somewhere else people have to be singing and rejoicing in life! The more death there is around, the more important to counter it with life, love, and beauty! (328)

Everything in the book makes sense together, even when reading and the narrative shifts from the singer’s diary in the 1920s to the interpreter’s mystical Q&A session with a refugee to Rome and to letters, everything is connected to the greater whole of what Shishkin is attempting to create, an entire universe of beauty, of yearning for love, of life in the face of death, of the history in everything, all tied in to the much greater questions of God’s role in everything:

The divine idea of the river is the river itself. (24)

The title of the book is emblematic of Shishkin’s themes of God and love at the same time: maidenhair is a type of fern that grows wild in Rome, the Eternal City that plays such a central role in the novel. Yet in Russia, maidenhair is a house plant that cannot grow without human care and affection:

For us, this is a house plant, otherwise it wouldn’t survive, without human warmth, but here it’s a weed. So you see, this is in a dead language, signifying something alive: Adiantum capillus veneris. Venus hair, genus Adiantum. Maidenhair. God of life. The wind barely stirs. As if nodding, yes yes, that’s true: this is my temple, my land, my wind, my life. The greenest of grasses. It grew here before your Eternal City and will grow here after. (500)

Even the epigraph to Maidenhair is so significant to the work that it deserves to be quoted, for it contains the essence of what Shishkin is up to:

And your ashes will be called, and will be told:

“Return that which does not belong to you;

reveal what you have kept to this time.”

For by the word was the world created, and by the word shall we be resurrected.

–Revelation of Baruch ben Neriah. 4, XLII

The theme of the word is one of the big themes that recur throughout Maidenhair in each narrative, with the importance of the recorded dialogue in the interpreter’s mission or in the diary entries of Isabella. The themes are complex and deep, but the sentiments expressed in them, the emotion of the characters that come through in the text, are all human and completely relatable. The most important themes that are discussed throughout the work include God (faith and spirituality), fate (and the individual), time (and time/space), war (across time and history), history (or the power of memory), diaspora (especially interesting as Shishkin spends much of his time outside of Russia, yet remains a quintessentially Russian writer), intertextuality (as a narrative and rhetorical style, and for the novel’s use of text-in-text-in-text), Russia’s role in the world (and their view of themselves in the world), the role of art in human society (the power of beauty to transcend the mundane day-to-day), migration/immigration (and the connection to paradise myths), mythology (of all stripes), Rome (after all, it is the Eternal City, so emblematic of humanity’s Eternal Problems) . . . The list could go on forever, the themes are huge, the book is a page-turner, not in the sense of plot-twists, but in the sense that every page contains a new revelation.

May I make one recommendation to you, the future reader of this brilliant novel? If so, please be an active reader while you read this book: keep a pen in hand, Post-It notes at the ready, or your e-book highlighting function at the ready, because every single page in this book contains ideas encapsulated in perfect quotes that you will want to revisit, along with the entirety of the novel, time and time again.

Maidenhair is the first Russian book of the 21st-century to appear in English translation that can be truly counted as an instant classic in the broad field of world literature, capable of being taught in university classrooms and discussed in book clubs for centuries to come. Every individual, every emotion, every idea that humanity has ever generated and will forever generate is encapsulated in the 500 pages of Maidenhair. With its perfect combination of style and substance, Maidenhair might just be the book you’ve been waiting your entire life to read.

*Editor’s note: The original review post listed Isabella Yurieva’s name incorrectly as Isabella St. George.

18 June 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

Here’s a thought-provoking interview from PMc Magazine, in which editor Tyler Malone interviews Chad Post on Open Letter Books, the world of American publishing, and the importance of international literature. Chad debriefs us on Open Letter’s history and concept, and unfolds his philosophy on the mission of a small press in the U.S.: “I’m truly dedicated to the idea that a nonprofit should do all it to better the part of the world that it’s related to,” he says. “And for us that means helping spread a love and appreciation of international writing and the art of translation.” Even though it may seem like a “losing battle” to many, Open Letter is committed to publishing high-impact books from other cultures, and refuses to cater to the lowest common denominator or to sacrifice art for profit.

It’s scary, and financially daunting, to take on such an enterprise; why does Open Letter do it? – So that the American book market doesn’t degenerate into a boring swamp of cultural incest, and so that American readers have access to inventive, meaningful new books that open our minds. “The more artistic voices available to readers and writers, the better,” Chad says. “A healthy translation culture helps to ensure that the literary world in the U.S. keeps renewing itself and evolving and expanding.” If we fail to expose ourselves to voices of other cultures, the American readership winds up with “books that are “entertainments” that appeal to the largest possible audience.” To keep our culture vibrant, energized, and informed, we need to carve out a place for international writers. On the joy of publishing these new voices, Chad shares lively personal enthusiasm: “. . . there’s probably no better feeling in publishing than when a book you’ve been obsessed with for a few years comes back from the printer and you can hold it, reread it, and finally share it with all your friends.” That’s what Open Letter is here for – to scout out great works from around the globe and share them with American readers, who deserve variety, inspiration, and a truly good read.

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods, which Lytton Smith translated from the Icelandic and is available from Open Letter.

This is the first book of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s to be translated into English, and it received a great amount of attention when we brought it out this past spring.

Introduced a few weeks ago, Aleksandra Fazlipour interned with me last semester and wrote a ton of book reviews, including this one.

Here’s part of her review:

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Click here to read the entire review.

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Billie labels Rafael a murderer: an odd title for a soldier whose profession it is to kill people. This begins to blur the line between soldier and civilian life. However, in spite of the harsh label she bestows on Rafael, Billie is hopeful in the way that is characteristic of childhood but has ideas and wisdom beyond her years, trusting Rafael and the circumstances but still questioning him without disobeying him when she suspects he has killed an unexpected visitor who goes missing. In some ways, Rafael becomes the family that she lost when she was left at the temporary home for children in Reindeer Woods, whose whereabouts we do not know (other than that they are in fact alive). Billie’s discussion with the chickens in the henhouse captures her unique perspective:

“Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today’s Saturday, and that’s when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God’s natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.”

Billie’s story is even stranger and more fantastical than she is as a character. Additionally, there are many different displacements that strip away the setting and add a mythical, fable-like quality to the story—the presence of modern-technology, including cell phones and computers, is confounded by a strange sense of tradition where little girls still curtsy and wear fancy dresses and lace socks daily. Furthermore, it is difficult to tell where the story takes place, because although the story is translated from Icelandic, Iceland does not have a military, the name “Rafael” has Italian or Spanish roots, and at one point the word “señorita” is used to refer to a woman. These displacements seclude Rafael and Billie in a dream-like setting where Billie’s dolls carry out conversations (with Billie and Rafael guiding them, of course) and sometimes kill themselves as part of their dramas, and where Billie’s father is a puppet who is ensnared by her mother by refusing to securely sew back on his damaged arm and thereby handicapping him:

One time, when Abraham’s arm ripped off during a brawl between the puppeteers about what should happen whether to go home or to the pub, Soffia refused to sew it back on; she took the torn arm and hid it. Borrowing a wheelchair was easy for a doctor, and so began a period of diligence in which Abraham sat at Soffia’s home in the wheelchair and wrote his work of jurisprudence; Soffia worked her shifts, and between them she sat at home too, reading medical books and pushing Abraham around in a wheelchair. She enjoyed pushing him. He enjoyed letting her push him because he loved depending on her, a change from the time when he didn’t want to depend on anyone Amidst this peaceful medical work, writing, and reading, Billie arrived. No-one had expected that. Abraham had thought his life’s mission on earth was not to have children, thought he was meant to break the mold, to exceed the frame that had been planned for him. It occurred to him that he might abandon mother and daughter before everything became too complicated and messy. Then he would leave behind a little souvenir which, amusingly enough, would grow larger, and he could fulfill his obligations as jurist somewhere else in peace and quiet.

My love, sew my arm back on, asked Abraham.

Soffia: No, Abraham. It isn’t good for you to drink beer now.

The disembodied and surreal nature of wartime that Ómarsdóttir in this story prevents the reader from knowing what is in fact real in Billie’s world, Reindeer Woods, or what is being fabricated through the eyes of a child or a nation fogged over by war. However, the dreamlike nature of the novel only increases its appeal, and makes Children in Reindeer Woods a more memorable tale.

31 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

2 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all the Jerzy Pilch fans out there, we’re going to be publishing his new book, My First Suicide, this summer, but for those of you who are too eager to wait until May, enter the contest below for a chance to win one of the 10 copies we’re giving away via GoodReads.

This new book is in the same vein as the other Pilch titles we’ve published: it’s semi-autobiographical, very funny, dark, filled with shittons of drinking and women . . . Vintage Pilch.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch

My First Suicide

by Jerzy Pilch

Giveaway ends April 15, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
12 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

Scars by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina (though Saer had recently moved to Paris when it was published)
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: The title sounds like an action movie and it would be cool to announce in a scary voice from the stage if it wins. And because it is fucking unforgettable.

This piece is written by the infamous Dustin Kurtz who works at the equally infamous McNally Jackson.

As I wrote to Chad earlier and may have proclaimed, unasked, a few times on the floor of my bookstore, Juan Jose Saer’s Scars is some kind of masterpiece. What I mean here is that this novel plays a single nuanced tune. It plays it with impressive range and variety. It plays it with enough subtlety to overcome the bluntness and stridency of the chosen instrument (male narrative voice in provincial Argentina in the midcentury). But more than that, it does it in such a way that variety itself, that range, that repetition above all, become not just structural methods for Saer but themselves the topics of the book. It is a book about small men, and whatever Saer’s intentions for the work it never grows grandiose enough to indicate a Great Book in ways we are used to recognizing. It is not, as I say, a masterpiece. I don’t generally care for masterpieces. Give me instead books that are lesser, are grounded, books filthy with humanity.

This book languished on my to-be-read pile for too long. I spilled something—what is this, coffee?—on it at some point. And then, this past December, I found myself trying to pull together a list of a few great books translated that season. Open Letter has pretty good credit in my house, and Chad, when first selling it to me, had been pretty exuberant, so I began to read.

There’s this filthy, evil June light coming through the window. I’m leaning over the table. sliding the cue, ready to shoot. The red and white balls are across the table, near the corner. I have the spot ball. I have to hit it softly so it hits the red ball first, then the white, then the back rail between the red ball and the white ball. The red ball should hit the side rail before mine hits the back rail, which it should make for at an angle, after it’s hit the white ball.

That is the opening passage of the book. Incredibly, bravely, it keeps going that way. How do you refuse a book like this? How do you even put it down?

Scars revolves more or less around the story of a single murder, told from the point of view of four men. As we pass through the book each narrator is closer to the murder and each narration is given a shorter span of time. The result is a sort of slow pacing along the path of a meditative labyrinth toward its not-so-nice center. The thing is, I don’t give a shit about that structure. It doesn’t hurt the book but it doesn’t add appreciably to it either. What matters are Saer’s characters and his way of nesting a few indelible details in a wealth of repetition.

While I’m mentioning things to make you avoid the book (“Great recommendation Dustin!” “Thanks, Chad!”) let me say that Scars could be read as misogynistic. It is more complex than that, though many of the characters themselves are unambiguously misogynistic for reasons of youth or spite or because this book is, again, set in Argentina in the mid twentieth century. Saer’s women are seen exclusively through male eyes. And Saer’s men are invariably angry or repressed or confused. The women are not always cast in a flattering light, and are always a source of self-loathing for the men. In fact the true heart of the book is hidden in these men’s frustrated relationships to women and the thick-barked form that frustration takes.

Oh, and the book is boring. (“Why yes, I will buy a copy. That sounds right up my alley, good bookseller. I was just thinking I needed a good soporific.”) Or, it isn’t boring but as I said it plays with boredom. Do you remember the whaling chapters in Moby-Dick? Right in the middle of your sexy harpoon allegory? Well some of Scars is like that. That billiards bit above is nothing. There is a passage about twenty pages long explaining and then over-explaining the rules of baccarat. I now know more than any person I have ever met in the entire course of my life about baccarat, excepting maybe Chad W. Post and Steve Dolph and the lucky folks (I am not being facetious here; they are lucky, this book is incredible) I convinced to buy a copy of this thing because they trust my taste or maybe just liked the pixel-flame cover art.

Another portion of the book, among my favorites, follows an aging judge as he drives up and down the streets of a small town in the rain. “I cross the Avenida del Sur, and at the next corner I turn right, then drive one block and turn left onto San Martin to the north” is a typical sentence. That is oddly specific, yes? After the first page of nothing but driving it becomes oddly hypnotic. After five more pages, you begin to relearn what a novel is.

This is Steve Dolph’s second translation of Saer, also having done the remarkable The Sixty-Five Years of Washington put out by Open Letter in 2010 and presumably their forthcoming edition of La Grande. With it he’s stepping into the shoes of the formidable Margaret Jull Costa, but it’s hard to imagine Saer in anyone else’s hands (or wait, shoes, I guess? Is that the lazy metaphor I was using?) at this point. Dolph is thankfully true to the understatement in this book. There are moments of flame-bright language—during dream sequences, bilious drunken dialogue, an excerpt from a novel in progress—but they are rare, and must leak up through extra-textual cracks in a shell of simple declarative vocabulary. Dolph does an impressive job here, using just the right measure of repetition in the language itself, opting for no more specific phrasing than is necessary. There are staircases, squares, doorways and trees, arcades, gin and long marsh grass. He has a good ear for the break of the sentences, for when a character’s narration should push or drag you, cozy you in or hold you distant. Even more, Dolph manages to coax a different timbre from the voice of each of these five sometimes very similar male narrators. He builds them of slang and its lack, of reflection and its lack, until he’s managed what I hope Saer himself did in the original: a mumbling too-easily-joined chorus of banalities and lust.

Ah that’s right, beer. I spilled a beer on it.

6 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

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

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Margaret C. Carson

Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Publisher: Open Letter Books

Why This Book Should Win: Because of all the great stories surrounding how it was discovered and published. Also because fellow BTBA-er Enrique Vila-Matas said that it “paves the way for the novel of the future.” That’s some solid praise.

I was just at the AWP conference where I ran into a lot of people who were big fans of this book. (They were especially excited to get their hands on The Planets, his next book, which comes out from Open Letter this summer.) And at least a few of these Chejfec fans asked how we discovered him. Sure, he’s the author of 13 books, and teaches at NYU, but neither his prolific career, nor his proximity to Rochester had anything to do with how this book came to be published.

Back a couple years ago, Scott Esposito linked to a year-end roundup post from the always interesting (and martial arts inflected) blog Hermano Cerdo in which Enrique Vila-Matas gushed about My Two Worlds and compared Chejfec to both Sebald AND Walser. That’s serious, eye-grabbing company.

Anyway, I posted about this on Three Percent and almost immediately thereafter I received an email from Margaret Carson about how she had just translated a piece of this for an upcoming issue of BOMB Magazine. She sent it along, we all fell in love, and quickly decided to sign on three books of his . . .

Everyone on the Open Letter editorial committee immediately recognized the importance and beauty of Sergio’s writing. This is one of those novels with a very simple plot—a writer at a literary conference in Brazil wanders around looking for a park and thinking about his upcoming birthday and the not-so-wonderful reviews his new book has been receiving—that is utterly dependent upon the quality of the writing and the atmosphere created.

Or, as Vila-Matas says in his introduction:

I begin as I’ll end: adrift. And I begin by wondering if novels have no choice but to narrate a story. The answer couldn’t be simpler: whether they intend to or not, they always tell a story. Because there’s not a single intelligent reader who, given something unique to read, even the most hermetic of novels, would fail to read a story into that impenetrable text. [. . .] If I really think about it, Chejfec is someone intelligent for whom the word novelist is a poor fit, because he creates artifacts, narrations, books, narrated thoughts, rather than novels. My Two Worlds, for instance, is above all a book that reminds us that there are novels with stories, but there are also not-so-orthodox novels—Chejfec’s are in this camp—though these may also contain stories. The story in My Two Worlds isn’t easy to summarize because—as it true for all his novels—what’s important seems merely an excuse to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental.

That goal—“to highlight the dramatic role of the incidental”—can be found right off the bat in the opening paragraph of the novel:

Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, made me see that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived. The idea occurred to me in Brazil, while I was visiting a city in the south for two days. I couldn’t really understand why I’d agreed to go there, not knowing anyone and having almost no idea about the place. It was afternoon, it was hot, and I’d been walking around looking for a park about which I had almost no information, except its somewhat musical name, which by my criterion made it promising, and the fact it was the biggest green space on the map of the city. I thought it impossible for a park that large not to be good. For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, wehre the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

One last little story that seems so very Chejfec-ian: Last spring, Sergio was on a PEN World Voices panel with me about “The Publishing Revolution.” We talked about any number of subjects, but a lot of time was spent talking about book discovery, about how to get your book into the hands of the right reader at the right time, especially in this increasingly digitally driven world. We used My Two Worlds as an example, about how we were planning on promoting it on GoodReads, through websites and interviews and all that.

After the panel ended, Sergio wandered over to Housing Works to browse around. Inside, he overheard this young man going on and on to a friend about this book he had just read and that had completely blown him away. Naturally, the book he was raving about was My Two Worlds, and he ended up spending a nice bit of time chatting with Sergio about it . . .

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to include this initially, but watch the video below to hear Margaret Carson and Sergio Chejfec discuss the book, the translation, and the book in general.

15 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The New Republic Ruth Franklin (who is working on a biography of Shirley Jackson, which should be amazing) has a piece detailing the five books that came out in 2011 that she wishes she had reviewed.

It’s a great list that includes Teju Cole’s Open City (“Reminiscent of the works of W.G. Sebald, this dreamy, incantatory debut was the most beautiful novel I read this year—the kind of book that remains on your nightstand long after you finish so that you can continue dipping in occasionally as a nighttime consolation.”), Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City, Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, and Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture:

Ugresic, a Croatian novelist and essayist who now lives in Amsterdam, is one of the most stringent and wide-ranging commentators at work today, bringing an ironic sensibility honed under communism to global pop culture. In the pieces collected here, many originally published in European newspapers, she sounds like the fantasy cultural-studies professor you never had, making crazy connections between unlikely ideas that turn out to be brilliant. In the long essay that opens the collection, she riffs on the concept of karaoke as a catch-all metaphor for the new forms of creativity, technologically enabled and often anonymous, that characterize the artists of the digital age—from users of the program Second Life to a performer on “Bulgarian Idol” who became an Internet sensation for her bastardization of the English language, rendering the chorus of her song as “Ken Lee / tulibu dibu douchoo” (“Can’t live / if living is without you”). Ugresic’s anecdotes and aperçus are as irresistibly quotable—“The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies”—as they are haunting.

As I’ve mentioned a million times (or so), and will again (see the next post), Karaoke Culture is one of my favorite books of the year. And thinking about it now, like right now, like days before the holidays start in full, I think this may well be the perfect book for this month. It can help get you through any and all less-than-ideal family experiences. You will laugh. And rage. Seriously, buy it now, read the first essay, and you’ll be hooked. (If you want a preview, click here.

10 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Milen Ruskov’s second published novel (and first to be translated into English), Thrown Into Nature poses as the traipsing and unfinished manuscript of an eager young Guimaraes da Silva (“The ‘da Silva’ part is made-up, by the way, since an aristocratic title causes people pay more attention to what you say.”). Set in sixteenth-century Sevilla the book follows the exploits of the famous Dr. Nicolas Monardes, founder of that great and all-curing medicine: tobacco.

Ruskov introduces Guimaraes da Silva as a (in his own opinion) regrettably Portuguese student on the cutting edge of medicine. Dr. Monardes sees him smoking a cigarella one day in a bar and takes him on as assistant; they are together ever after. Guimaraes is a mass of contradictions, innocent of opinion yet aware of deceit, indecisive yet committed, and above all, sure but misled. Though he is sometimes brought into the most un-scientific of adventures—chasing a ghost out a church with a cigarella and a staff—he nonetheless carefully records his experiences in the hopes of creating a great book like his mentor.

Ruskov presents Guimaraes’ manuscript as an unfinished text, heading chapters in the haphazard order of 3. For Having a Good Time; 3b. The Title Will Be Thought Up in December; 3c. The Following Summer—note, there is no 3a. As the book goes on it becomes apparent that the manuscript is not so much the pieces of an unfinished text, seemingly plot-less as it is, but the pieces of an unfinished mind. Guimaraes, young and impressionable, picks his way through the good doctor’s values and philosophies as he comes to better understand the people around him and executes a somewhat shady, if comical, coming of age.

In assisting with Dr. Monardes’ medical appointments Guimaraes literally gets thrown into Nature, and yes, that’s Nature with a capital N.

Is there anything more endlessly energetic, more lavishly fertile, yet crazier, than she? Of course not! If Nature put on a human face and strolled around the streets of Sevilla, she would have long since been locked up as a dangerous maniac, perhaps even burned at the stake by the Inquisition. She would be of the female sex, of course, giving birth to a child every five minutes, laughing and jumping about at the same time, and impregnated without a visible agent, as if by the wind itself. Yes, Nature is absolutely mad!

Yet she and she alone is the procreator of the world. Not the Devil or God, not some evil genius or some moronic mad scientist, much less the Good Lord, but simply a mad, all-powerful, all-purblind, accidental and chaotic Nature.

Again and again Guimaraes comes up against the force that seems to complicate everything in life. Serving everyone from King Don Felipe’s son to animals to peasants, Guimaraes gets taken on joyride that is not so much about the ins and outs of medicine as it is the ins and outs of human nature.

Dr. Monardes is a humanist because it is fashionable, a slave trader because it is profitable, and a chain smoking satire of privilege and money, yet serves as Guimaraes’ moral compass. A constant philosopher in his own way, Monardes tries to impart his wisdom on his apprentice and others, including peasants and priests. Though merciful in some instances, such as when Guimaraes and their resplendent carriage driver Jesus manage to burn down his barn, he can be capricious as well. Even in his will he displays this conflicting dual nature, going so far as to decide not to leave Guimaraes his house (“I’m not going to leave you anything, since I’ve never been particularly fond of you”), but gives him instructions on who to bribe on the municipal council to get it anyway.

As the story progresses the manuscript becomes less a tribute to the healing power of tobacco—for intestinal worms, bad breath, and waking the dead—and more a series of vignettes, flashing between Guimaraes’ past and present and brushing against the era’s most important figures: Don Felipe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Lope de Vega and King James I. By pairing the serious with the ludicrous, Ruskov reminds us that even in its most sober moments life can be a farce.

31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I mentioned this in passing a couple weeks back, but The Paris Review website recently posted Dubrakva Ugresic’s “Assault on the Minibar,” which is one of the many fantastic pieces in her new collection, Karaoke Culture.

A number of sites have been linking to this essay, and I particularly like the summary that The Millions posted:

Anyone who travels a lot will enjoy Dubravka Ugresic‘s essay on hotel minibars. As a matter of fact, just about anyone will enjoy this essay regardless of how often they travel.

Here’s the opening of Dubravka’s attack:

At the reception desk I filled in all the necessary details and got the key. Before I headed off to my room the receptionist asked:

“Would you like to open a hotel account?”

“What’s that?”

“It means that you don’t have to pay for everything you have or use in the hotel immediately, you just give your account number.”

I declined. What do I want with a hotel account? I’m only here for three days. Breakfast is included, and most of the time I’ll be out and about.

The room was large, luxurious, and had that fresh new smell. The furniture was certainly brand-new, the bathroom enormous, and the heavy windows opened gracefully with the touch of a button.

I hadn’t even gotten around to unpacking my things when I heard a knock at the door.

“Can I help you?” I asked the young porter.

“Sorry, but I have to lock the minibar.”

“Why?”

“Because you didn’t open a hotel account,” he said, before heading for the minibar, locking it, and leaving.

All of a sudden I felt the blade of the invisible sword of injustice pressing on the back of my neck. I don’t even use minibars. Alcohol doesn’t agree with me; I don’t like greasy, stale crisps; I hate any kind of peanuts; candy bars of uncertain origin aren’t my thing; random bottled liquids inevitably give me heartburn; and carbonated, nonalcoholic drinks are just plain bad for your health. The bottom line is that a minibar doesn’t have anything I’d ever want. So why did I feel so humiliated? Just because the bellboy locked the minibar? Did he put a padlock on the shower, the bathroom tap, the TV remote, the toilet seat? He didn’t. Rationalizing it, comforting myself with thoughts of the palatial bed or a hot shower, nothing helped. I was inconsolable. It was just the hopeless sense of deprivation.

You can read the whole thing here and can purchase the book here and can subscribe to get this and all Open Letter titles here.

19 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you probably already know, since our inception, we’ve offered subscriptions to Open Letter. You can subscribe for six months or a year and receive every title that we publish during that time, which means that you receive a book about every five weeks. Also included is a letter explaining how we came to publish that book, and some other additional information, such as an interview with the author or translator, or an article about the book, or something.

Anyway, for the rest of the month, we’re offering a special deal: for anyone who renews or buys a new subscription, we’ll add on 1 extra book to a six-month subscription, and 2 extra books if you sign up for a year.

In other words, for $60 you’ll get 6 Open Letter titles, and for $100 you’ll get 12.

So sign up today.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of subscriptions to the functioning of Open Letter. Although the majority of our sales are through bookstores, subscriptions make up a decent percentage. And provide us with a chance to be in touch with some of our biggest fans—something that I truly appreciate. I love writing the letters that go along with the books, and I really enjoy hearing back from subscribers.

All of the money from subscriptions goes back into doing all the things we do: publishing international literature, running this site, putting together the Reading the World Conversation Series, maintaining the translation database, running the Best Translated Book Awards, doing the Three Percent podcast . . . .

If you sign up now, the first book you’ll receive is Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture, which was recently excerpted at both The Paris Review and Asymptote.= After that you’ll receive Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, Juan Jose Saer’s Scars, Eduardo Chirinos’s The Smoke of Distant Fires, Svetislav Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy, Kristin Omarsdottir’s Children in Reindeer Woods, Jerzy Pilch’s My First Suicide, Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets, an anthology of young Latin American writers entitled The Future Is Not Ours, Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas, and Quim Monzo’s A Thousand Morons, along with many other wonderful titles from around the world.

Thanks in advance, and I hope you enjoy all of the books . . .

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a short review by Julianna Romanazzi of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson and coming out this month from Open Letter.

My Two Worlds was a Read This Next selection a couple months back, so please click here to read an extended excerpt.

This is one of three Chejfec books we’ve signed on, with The Dark and The Planets forthcoming. It’s also worth noting that Sergio and Margaret will be doing a few events this fall, including one at McNally Jackson on September 15th and one at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Julianna was a summer intern who, on the final day, told me I’ve been pronouncing her name wrong the past few months. Of course, now I can’t remember if it’s Julie-annnna or Julie-ahna. But it’s one of the two. Seriously, Julianna was a great intern, fantastic occasional poster, and quick learner, seeing that she only had to sit through two of my “why don’t you kids understand how to make logical Excel spreadsheets?!?!?!” rants. (And seriously. The future is in the hands of people who can’t organize data in spreadsheet form. Shudder.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

“In general, I know that when speaking of private and opposing worlds, one tends to refer to divided, sometimes even irreconcilable facets of personality or of the spirit, each with it corresponding secret value and in psychological, metaphysical, political or simply practical—even pathological—content. But in my case there was neither a moral nor existential disjunctive, what was more, I saw that my two worlds weren’t separated in an equal or reciprocal way; neither did one linger in the shadows or in private as the flip side of the other, the visible one, who knows which . . .”

Sergio Chefjec’s novel My Two Worlds is a tale that is part stream of consciousness and part self-reflection, a surfacing and resurfacing of a narrative vacillating between the outer world and the inner one. After leaving a literary conference the narrator, of whose inner and outer worlds the reader rides the waves, takes up his habit of walking while searching for a kind of contentment that has eluded him so many times before.

Reflecting on all things from street vendors and old men to the nature of emotional and philosophical inheritance (in the form of a wristwatch that ticks backward) the narrator phases out between different kinds of consciousness. Chefjec’s prose, lush with characteristic imagery, maintains its flickering style as it flows from the present circumstances to recollections of the past.

Click here to read the entire piece.

22 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“In general, I know that when speaking of private and opposing worlds, one tends to refer to divided, sometimes even irreconcilable facets of personality or of the spirit, each with it corresponding secret value and in psychological, metaphysical, political or simply practical—even pathological—content. But in my case there was neither a moral nor existential disjunctive, what was more, I saw that my two worlds weren’t separated in an equal or reciprocal way; neither did one linger in the shadows or in private as the flip side of the other, the visible one, who knows which . . .”

Sergio Chefjec’s novel My Two Worlds is a tale that is part stream of consciousness and part self-reflection, a surfacing and resurfacing of a narrative vacillating between the outer world and the inner one. After leaving a literary conference the narrator, of whose inner and outer worlds the reader rides the waves, takes up his habit of walking while searching for a kind of contentment that has eluded him so many times before.

Reflecting on all things from street vendors and old men to the nature of emotional and philosophical inheritance (in the form of a wristwatch that ticks backward) the narrator phases out between different kinds of consciousness. Chefjec’s prose, lush with characteristic imagery, maintains its flickering style as it flows from the present circumstances to recollections of the past.

At first frustrated by his difficulty transposing a map’s two-dimensional representations to the three-dimensional world, the narrator eventually arrives at the city park he has been searching for. Coming up on another birthday and in between novels—the last of which an anonymous email tells him is doing poorly—the narrator sets out to find a sanctuary and further than that, a sense of self.

Trying to blend in and acting almost suspiciously casual, he seeks to become one of the denizens of the park, to be one of its natural and habitual citizens though it is his first time in the Brazilian city. As the narrator further weaves himself into the park’s framework—mimicking his bench partner, speculating on the nature of swans, faking familiarity in an interaction with an elderly woman—the two halves of his experience begin to come together. The reconciliation is not within the narrator’s adjustment to the park around him, but as it becomes clear in the landscape’s mirroring of his memories and impressions the narrator reconciles the gaps between his inner and outer perceptions, one no longer separate from the other.

Chefjec’s setting of the park situates his tale in a world within a world, with the quiet nature scenes and somnolent people sheltered from the city outside. In a subtle balancing act My Two Worlds conjures the art of mimicking itself and is an impressive foray into a new contemporary literary style.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Lily Ye’s review of Vertical Motion, this week’s Read This Next title. Vertical Motion is coming out next month from Open Letter, and is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

For an “experimental” Chinese writer, Can Xue has received a good deal of attention in the U.S. She’s had books published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale University Press, and Henry Holt. Additionally, her stories appear in Conjunctions on a regular basis.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s enthusiastic review of her latest collection:

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

Click here to read the entire review. And click here to read three of the stories.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

In her story “A Village in the Big City,” the protagonist is visiting an old neighbor, Uncle Lou. During his visit, he finds that Uncle Lou’s floor (the 24th) has suspended itself in midair while Uncle Lou’s cousin who is “so ugly that he can’t associate with others” waits outside the apartment:

The person was on the stairs, which is to say he was in midair. Judging by his voice, he must be hanging in midair. I couldn’t bear to shout again, because I was afraid he would fall. Maybe the one facing danger wasn’t he, but I. Was he saying that I was in danger? I didn’t dare shout again. This was Uncle Lou’s home. Eventually he would have to return. Perhaps he had simply gone downstairs to buy groceries. It was a nice day. The sun was out, so it was a little hot in the room. So what? I shouldn’t start making a fuss because of this. When I recalled that someone outside was hanging in midair, I started sweating even more profusely. My clothes stuck to my body; this was hard to endure.

As can be seen here, Xue’s protagonists, who are often the narrator as well, are oftentimes just as perplexed as her readers may be, only heightening the sensation of unease. Even the narrator is unsure what is happening around them, though this is the very world that they inhabit, and there is a feeling that there is something they should know about this world that everyone around them takes for granted (Uncle Lou is not at all disturbed by the floating building) but they are unable to come to grips with. Another example, from “The Brilliant Purple China Rose,” in a fairly conventional seeming set-up, a couple, Jin and Mei, live next door to Ayi, a busybody neighbor:

When Mei turned around to close the door, what she saw in the room startled her: a rat was sneaking back and forth under the tablecloth on the dining table. There had seldom been rats in their home. Was it really a rat? [. . .] Shaken, Meid stood in the room and said, “Rat.”

Jin’s gaze left his book and he glanced at her. Then he returned to the book and said:

“The rat is Ayi. You needn’t worry too much.”

Jin is completely unperturbed. No explanation is given for how or why Ayi has turned into a rat, and the reverse transformation back from being a rat is never addressed in the slightest. I wavered reading this story, wondering if I had missed something obvious: Was this metaphorical or literal? And most of all, how does Jin know, why doesn’t he care, and why does Mei simply accept this explanation?

This is Xue’s incredible success in obstructing external signification through the transformation of familiar elements into unfamiliar. We have seen humans turn into animals, but not like this—we cannot successfully connect her fiction to known narratives. Xue destabilizes the very idea of familiarity, upends what the reader believes is knowable, by stripping away the expository that we have come to expect. The reader becomes like one of the “little critters” in the titular story “Vertical Motion.” These creatures can neither see nor smell and can feel only through their skin. Twisting and turning, they dig through the earth, remaining always underground. Gravity lets them know which way is up, but they never know how close or far they are from the surface.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just published an interview with Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping about their translation of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion.

Here’s an excerpt:

Read This Next: You’ve been working with Can Xue for a while now. How did you first discover her work?

Chen Zeping: We had read some of her short stories along with some by other avant-garde writers. After translating one story for Manoa and one for Conjunctions, we continued translating stories by Can Xue whenever either she or editors invited us to do so.

Karen Gernant: Another translator, Herbert Batt, was serving as guest editor for an issue of Manoa that was published in 2003. He asked us if we would like to translate some stories by the avant-garde writer Can Xue. We translated five, of which Manoa’s editor Frank Stewart selected one. Can Xue evidently liked our work, for when Conjunctions editors Brad Morrow and Martine Bellen solicited a story from her for an issue that also appeared in 2003, she turned to us to translate the story.

RTN: Can Xue’s writing is simultaneously straightforward—it’s not complicated to read from sentence to sentence—and complex—the straightforwardness masks a great deal of narrative depth. As translators, does this style pose any special challenges?

CZP: I understand that the translators’ job is to transfer the works into another language in such a way as to convey the original. We avoid adding any interpretation if we do not have to. In most cases, CX’s stories have their own surface logic so that sentences are also logically connected.

KG: As Chen Zeping suggests, we translate what we see on the page, allowing readers to interpret these words as they choose. We think that readers must enter into Can Xue’s stories in order to understand them. But we do not think it’s our job as translators to lead readers toward that understanding.

Click here to read the whole interview.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next focus on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson), we’re going to be running two interviews with Chejfec. Up first is a conversation he had with Margaret Carson about My Two Worlds. This is a great intro to the book, it’s origins, and what makes this novel so interesting.

Margaret Carson: I’ve heard the novel described as the story of a man visiting an unnamed city in Brazil who walks to a park and wanders around its interior. It’s that, but it’s also so much more. If someone asked you what My Two Worlds was about, what would you say?

Sergio Chejfec: I don’t think there’s much more to add. I would say that the walk itself allows this character to have thoughts related to his past and his milieu (social, historical, cultural, etc.), and that as he keeps walking, he recovers experiences related to themes such as one’s heritage, city landscapes, urban conditions in the Third World, the Holocaust, representations of nature, etc. But the truth is, I’m uneasy with these kinds of lists because I don’t believe they describe what in my mind is essential: the story wants to depict the development of a thought, and the main character finds excuses or reasons in what he sees to become reflective. But he’s also aware that he lacks strong opinions, and that it’s hard for him to arrive at any definitive conclusions. I’d say the novel is an attempt to navigate through interconnected episodes, stories in miniature, small in scale. It’s as if these scenes were simplified to the extreme, like cells of possible scenes that weren’t developed.

MC: Could you talk about how you began work on the novel? Did you start with a certain idea or plan? How did the novel evolve?

SC: I don’t have much faith in linear stories. My novels don’t move ahead because a crisis or enigma has been resolved, or because of a more or less conventional development of a drama or action. Since I don’t tell “stories,” my novels are planned differently. They start with simple situations (in this case, for example, a walk through an unknown park) and they narrate a sequence of events that occur within that frame. The idea behind My Two Worlds was to write an essay about turning fifty. As I say at the beginning, two books by writer friends had come out, both dealing with this theme, but with different results. And I wanted to “fight” a bit with them. I wanted to offer my version of turning fifty, and then devote myself to discussing their books and how they talked about their fifty years. But in the end that plan came to nothing, because I began to think it was enough to offer my version, or maybe because after I’d done that, I no longer wanted to mark my differences with them, since they were obvious. And something else is essential: from the outset I conceived of this novel as reflexive, or essayistic. It’s a fairly habitual characteristic in my books.

You can read the complete interview at the Read This Next site.

21 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

OK, so I didn’t get to writing up all the things I wanted to this week, but before taking off for Amsterdam and the Non-Fiction Conference (see next post), I thought I’d share our Summer 2011 catalog.

With a little luck, I’ll highlight each of these next week, with excerpts and the like, but for now, here’s a list of all five titles along with links to their Open Letter pages, where you can find cover images, jacket copy, links to excerpts, author bios, etc., etc.

  • Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excellent collection of Monzo’s stories, and the second book of his that we’re publishing. Next up: 1000 Morons.

  • Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson, with an introduction by Enrique Vila-Matas

This is the first of three Chejfec titles we’re publishing, the other two being The Dark and The Planets. First came across Chejfec in a post by Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading linking to a recommendation at Hermano Cerdo written by Enrique Vila-Matas about how totally awesome this book is. (Or some similar Spanish phrasing.) We then went on to buy the rights to all three books thanks to a brilliant excerpt that was in BOMB magazine.

  • Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs, translated from the Czech by Kača Poláčková

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And the second Open Letter book in which guinea pigs are subjected to uncool things. I get the strangest reaction from friends when I try and describe just how funny the narrator’s guinea pig “experiments” are. Like the one with the record player. Or the stove. Or the bathtub. . . . Um, yeah. But seriously, it’s hysterical—mainly because of the voice of the befuddled, clueless narrator. And we have some awesome promotions in mind for this . . . none of which involve the harming of physical, living guinea pigs. Promise.

This new collection by Can Xue (who has also been published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale, and Conjunctions) is the first Chinese title to come out from Open Letter. She’s a very interesting, unique writer who reminds me a bit of Rikki Ducornet. The stories are a bit surreal, surprising, and, at time, disorienting in a very pleasurable way.

We published Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronje last fall to some good attention. She’s a stark, interesting South African writer, and in the end, I think Book of Happenstance is an even better book than Cronje . . .

More all next week . . .

9 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The other week, media strategist David Henderson came to the University of Rochester to give us some media training on how best to present yourself on TV, how to buy a second to think of a good answer to a tricky question, how to speak slowly, etc., etc. (And no, that last one didn’t stick. At least not for me.)

Anyway, as part of this he filmed the following video about Open Letter Books. I’m embarrassed to watch myself on things like this, but I’ve heard from others that it’s a decent presentation of what we do. So in case anyone’s interested, here it is:

5 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Okla Elliott’s review of Season of Ash in Inside Higher Ed:

Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash is the kind of novel that reminds me why I read novels in the first place, but it’s also the kind that makes me wonder why I bother to write. Before the end of this review, I am going to try to convince you that Volpi is a genius, that you have to buy this book, and that he’ll end up with the Nobel Prize in Literature if there is any justice in the world (which there might not be . . .)—but before I attempt all that, you should know who Jorge Volpi is, as he is not yet well-known to North American readers.

Jorge Volpi, born in the internationally tumultuous year of 1968 in Mexico City, has written nine novels, including one other, In Search of Klingsor, that has been translated into English and which has won prizes in Spain and France, as well as Volpi’s native Mexico. He is one of the founders (along with Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, et al) of the “Crack Movement” in Mexican literature, a movement attempting to free itself from what its members perceive as the chains of magical realism, hoping to return to the joys found in the work of, for example, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Volpi studied law at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and holds his PhD in Spanish philology from Universidad de Salamanca in Spain. He has worked as a lawyer, a political aide, and as a scholar. The evidence of this political/legal praxis and this scholarly knowledge certainly show up in his work, though never pedantically or gratuitously. In the world of Spanish-language literature, he is known for his wide-ranging intelligence, the ambition of his work, his intricate plots, and a subtly dark humor.

Season of Ash opens with the infamous 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl. (So, okay, here I have an admission: I rather disliked the first few paragraphs of the novel—so much so, in fact, I was disappointed I’d agreed to review the book, since I was worried the rest of it would be equally unpleasant. I mention this for two reasons—to let you know I’m not such a fan of Volpi’s novel that I can’t admit its failings, and to make sure if you pick up a copy of the book, that you force past the first two pages, because after that, it’s pretty much perfect.) Here is Volpi, several pages in, at his lyric finest, personifying the radiation from the reactor’s meltdown as a monster the hopeless Soviet soldiers die trying to fight:

Wind and rain were carrying its humors toward Europe and the Pacific, its dregs were piling up in lakes, and its semen was filtering its way through the geological strata. The monster was in no hurry. It was patiently planning its revenge: Every baby born without legs, without a pancreas, every sterile sheep, dying cow, every rusty lung, every malignant tumor, every eaten-away brain would celebrate its revenge.

That wide narrative view—which takes in so much geography, time, and human suffering—is paradoxically one of the joys throughout the novel. The various plotlines, however, occasionally focus very closely on certain characters, the POV embedding so deeply into the consciousness of a particular character in the ensemble cast that we forget the novel spans four continents, eight decades, and over a dozen important characters (not to mention such historical figures as Joseph Stalin, Ronald Reagan, and Boris Yeltsin). Though, now looking over the above excerpt, I see just how intricately Volpi weaves his narrative lines, how flawlessly he modulates his narrative registers; I say this because while I enjoy the excerpt by itself, it loses much (most?) of its power out of context, where we see Soviet soldiers sent to their deaths, ordered to bury the site of the incident with sand, ordered to axe to death all the animals in the region and incinerate them, all the while dying slowly or quickly of radiation poisoning. We also are worried about the political well-being of the scientists involved as we read all this. And on, and on.

And as a not-so-subtle reminder, this is available as part of our 2 for $22 offer. And as a reminder, when you buy any 2 Open Letter books for $22, you’re automatically entered in a drawing to win a year’s subscription . . .

16 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II and here for Part III and here for Part IV.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

They were shown round the rest of the factory, saw the storage room and the cabinetmaker’s workshop in the basement where the great machines were housed and the façades, wind chests and wooden pipes were made. “See this, Jonas, cherry wood. And over there: ebony! This is a far cry from whittling willow flutes, eh?” They proceeded to the first floor, to the pipe store and the tuning room where the pipes were given their first rough tuning. His father’s face lit up, he picked up pipes and blew into them. Each pipe had a life of its own, was an instrument in itself. Haakon Hansen was looking more and more happy, chatting incessantly to their companion about matters which went way over Jonas’s head, about the Principal and the Octave Bass, about the importance of the choir organ to the tonal quality of the instrument. Jonas watched as a man made a notch in a pipe with a knife and rolled back a tongue of metal with a pair of pliers, much as Jonas would have opened the lid on a sardine tin. He wished his mother could have been there, she would have loved this, working as she did at the Grorud Ironmonger’s. Jonas always got a great kick out of places which combined ironmongery with music, uniting his mother’s and his father’s work—in such situations he could well understand why two such different individuals came to be married to one another. He heard his father and the strange man talking about the German factory which had supplied the stops. Jonas loved all the secrecy surrounding the metal alloys for
the pipes, it smacked of alchemy. I’m not in an organ factory, he thought. I’m on a visit to a wizard’s cave.

Then, to crown it all—a well-orchestrated surprise—their guide flung open the doors of the assembly hall, a room the size of a medium-sized church, and there, standing against one wall, all ready for playing, was Grorud’s new organ. A shimmering palace. Jonas’s father bounded over to the organ, looked back at the others, his arms outstretched to the gleaming façade, like a child unable to believe its eyes, while people stood there nodding, as if to say: “Yes, it’s yours, you can have it.” Haakon Hansen switched it on, set the stops and began to play. He played the only fitting piece of music: Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude in E-flat major, pro organo pleno, he played so resoundingly that he all but raised the roof. And as his father played, Jonas tried to grasp how everything he had seen, all those separate elements in so many different rooms—there were thousands of pipes alone—could conjoin to form such a palatial instrument, one capable of producing such glorious, polyphonous music—a whole that was so much more than the individual parts which he had seen. A sound which caused the body to swell. It was true, it was alchemy, gold was made here, but it was gold in the form of music.

Jonas knew, of course, that with this visit his father was trying to tell him something important, and on the way home Haakon did indeed say something, although it was no more than a single sentence: “Remember, that was just an organ.” That was all. His father did not say another word on the drive home. Haakon Hansen never said too much. But in his mind Jonas could hear the rest: “So just imagine how everything in life fits together.”

And that was why you had to save lives. In his mind’s eye, Jonas sometimes pictured people as being like walking organs. The first time he saw a dying child on television he realized what a tragedy this was, because what he beheld was a mighty organ into which no air, no spirit, no life was being breathed, one which, in all its senseless and ghastly complexity, was breaking down into its individual parts.

Jonas Wergeland sat in Grorud Church, playing an organ which he had, so to speak, seen unveiled; he was playing Bach, the fugue which accompanied the prelude in E-flat major, marveling at an invention which enabled him, with just ten fingers and two feet, to produce music so splendid, so powerful, that it penetrated right down into the foundations of the building. Perhaps, when his life was over, this is what would be cited as his greatest achievement: that he had, at one felicitous moment, succeeded in playing Bach’s prelude and fugue in E-flat major. He felt the tears falling, realized that he was crying, as if the music had also penetrated to his foundations. He did not know whether he was weeping out of grief or at the thought of an experience shared with his father or because of the beauty of the music, a beauty which reminded him of having his head inside a crystal chandelier sparkling with light and shot with rainbows.

The fugue came to an end. Jonas Wergeland altered the stops, struck up the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light,” and how he played: played joyfully, played wistfully, played as if he were a lifesaver, someone capable of breathing life into people. And from the church beneath him the song swelled up, the singing truly hit the roof, with a force unlike anything Jonas had ever heard before. Because he was not alone. The church was full. He had got there in good time, but the church was already packed when he arrived. That was why Grorud had seemed so deserted. Everyone was here. Well over a thousand people. It had come as a surprise to him. Who was his father? Were all of these people really here to honor Haakon Hansen, to pay him their respects?

Jonas played. Down below, in front of the altar rail, lay his father. Not as if dead, but dead. Haakon Hansen had died “on the job,” as they say. Jonas was playing at his own father’s funeral, a funeral which some would describe as scandalous, others as baffling, while his mother, who had more right than anyone to speak on the subject, simply said: “No one would understand anyway.”

Jonas played “Lead, Kindly Light,” Purday’s lovely melody, he had the urge to improvise, introduce some provocative chords, produce innovative modulations while moaning and humming along like Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett. His father would have liked that. Jonas was always nervous when playing for his father. Now too. Even though Haakon Hansen could not hear him. He lay in his coffin, dead. Yet Jonas played as if he could bring his father to life, was amazed to find that he still possessed it: the longing to be a lifesaver.

He had trained so hard, so resolutely. Particularly during the year when he turned ten it seemed to him that he was more in the water than out of it. At Frogner Baths, at Torggata Baths, out at Hvaler, this was his main pursuit: practicing staying underwater for as long as possible. Building up his lung capacity. He could swim underwater for longer than any of his chums, had no difficulty in swimming across Badedammen or the length of the Torggata pool. At Frogner Baths, where you could look into the upstairs pool through round windows, he scared the wits out of spectators by diving down and goggling out at them as inquisitively as they were peering in, rather like a seal in an aquarium—except that he stayed there for so long, on the other side of the window, that people began to shout and bang on the glass in alarm. These daredevil dives did not escape the attention of the lifeguards either: “Any more of your tomfoolery and you’re out on your ear,” they bawled at him from their high stools.

But it wasn’t tomfoolery, it was conscientious training. Jonas Wergeland was preparing for his great undertaking: that of saving a life.

15 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II and here for Part III.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

How could anyone have missed it? All those books, a whole sea of articles and reports on Jonas Wergeland—and no one has mentioned the real prime motive behind everything he did. Because the fact is that Jonas made up his mind in the spring of the year when he turned ten. As he saw it, the answer to the question of the fundamental reason for living obviously had to be related to life itself: it was, quite simply, to save lives. Jonas made the sort of secret, solemn decision of which only a child is capable. One day, he vowed, he would save someone’s life. Most children do not give much thought to what they will be when they grow up. Even when coming out with the expected “A policeman!” or “A ship’s captain!” they are really not that interested. It is too abstract a concept. But Jonas meant it with all his heart when, in response to the grown-ups’ questions, he declared: “I’m going to be a lifesaver.”

From the very start he knew it would have to do with water. With drowning. He could not picture himself reaching out a hand to stop a runaway pram from careering downhill onto the electrified rails of the new subway line, all but stifling a yawn as he did so, or nonchalantly sticking out a foot to prevent some brat on a sledge from sliding into the path of a big truck. No, it would have to be something more spectacular. A real act of heroism. Preferably with masses of spectators. Grandstands full. He toyed for a while with fire as an alternative; in his mind he saw himself rescuing a woman from the licking flames in a burning building; pictured himself dashing out, coughing, his eyebrows singed, with the woman in his arms, just as the fire engines drove up with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring and the whole edifice collapsed in a deadly inferno behind him. In his imagination, the woman was always wearing lacy underwear and had her arms wrapped tightly around him, a reward greater than seeing his name—inscribed in letters of fire, so to speak—on any “Norwegian Fire Protection Diploma of Honor.”

But training for such an eventuality was not easy, and Jonas realized that it would have to be water—even though this was several decades before television series about lifeguards would become such a hit. For Jonas, this conviction went hand in hand with the knowledge that he was in possession of an extraordinary gift: it could not be for nothing that he had been endowed with his almost uncanny ability to hold his breath. Some day, possibly a cold winter’s day, in front of a stunned crowd, he would have to dive off a quayside to save a child that had fallen in and was lying many meters below the surface. There might even be ice, and he would have to find his way back to a little hole in it, like a seal. Shouts and cheers. Banner headlines. His name in shining letters. “Boy risks his own life.” The classic life-saving exploit. The sort of thing for which people were awarded the Carnegie Medal. Some day the call would come and he had to be ready. In his daydreams the child was usually a girl, a lass with wet hair and lacklustre eyes which, nonetheless, were turned up to him in a look of eternal gratitude.

Jonas trained with single-minded determination. Held his breath on the walk to school, held his breath in the classroom, held his breath before he went to sleep. He thought the hour of his great deed lay far in the future, that he would have to be patient. And then, only a year after he had made up his mind to be a lifesaver, with his basic training barely completed, it was upon him. The accident occurs on a day when he is totally unprepared for it, a day when he has almost forgotten about it or is, at any rate, thinking about something else. A day when the aim is not to save a life, but to see as many naked women as possible.

Jonas Wergeland sat on the organ bench. Remembered a dream he had put out of his mind, rejected as being far too naïve. Of being a lifesaver. The first time his father had taken him behind the organ and shown him the fan and the bellows; it had reminded him of breathing, of being able to control your breath. Jonas thought, wove, his playing suddenly more inspired, as if he really could save lives, breathe life, spirit, into something that was dead; manipulated the stops as if he were Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory. There, in Grorud Church, he played Bach, the exquisite “little” Prelude in E minor, a piece which starts out sounding like an improvisation, a playful exercise in runs and harmonies, but gradually slips into a more definite pattern, following a more distinct theme. Jonas had spent a long time practicing to get it right, but now he simply sat there, weaving, or leaving it to Bach, the great weaver of the Baroque. Every musician knows that sometimes—on mysteriously blessed days—one can exceed one’s own musical and, not least, technical skills. For Jonas, this was one of those days. It felt good to play. There was something special about the contact between his fingers and the keys, an unusual sureness to his touch; even his feet seemed to dance of their own accord.

Jonas did not know that a woman clad in bright orange was about to enter the church beneath him and, indirectly, change his life. He was playing the organ, and because he happened to be playing Bach on the organ, a piece of music resembling a network within which everything was connected in a comforting and meaningful fashion, his thoughts kept revolving around his father. His father and him. Always these two, Haakon and Jonas. He knew he was the apple of his father’s eye, thought it might have something to do with a talent they shared, that his father saw something in Jonas which he recognized. He had the feeling that his father was trying to shield him from something, though he never knew what.

As a small boy, Jonas could have appeared on Double Your Money, answering questions on his father. He knew his every wrinkle, every scent, every story. He could describe the way his father ate grapefruit, or his virtual addiction to the National Geographic; he could detail his father’s method of cutting his toenails or repeat word for word the minutes-long spiels he recited every morning in bed as he stretched his limbs until they cracked. Jonas was the only one, so he believed, who knew of the great pleasure Haakon Hansen took in being able to paddle, edge, his kayak in and out of the little islets around Hvaler. And then there were father’s breakfasts: bacon and egg every morning when there was no school. Instead of bawling out the standard “come-and-get-it” refrain their father would sit down at the ivories of the piano in the living room and wake them with a rendition of Bach’s Goldberg variation no. 6, a piece which is only thirty seconds long, but which Jonas felt was the closest one came to the perfect work for the piano. His father played
that same piece every Saturday and Sunday morning, year in year out; the pleasure of it stayed with Jonas for ever, that of waking to Bach’s Goldberg variation no. 6 and the smell of his father’s breakfast. “What more does a man need than Bach and a bit of bacon?” as Haakon Hansen would say, thereby making his contribution to the great debate on the meaning of life. It was a weekend in itself: Bach and bacon. And bacon, mark you, that was as crisp as the music of Bach.

Jonas would be well up in years before he understood that even though you knew someone, you might not know them at all.

One day in April they went for a drive in his father’s Opel Caravan, these two, always just these two, Haakon and Jonas. A journey of discovery his father called it. Jonas had been given the day off school; he thought they were going to Gjøvik, but they had carried on past it and taken a road away from Lake Mjøsa, running inland. Jonas stared out of the window as they drove through a valley, feeling rather disappointed. Nothing but farms, a few scattered houses. Could anything be discovered here, in such a lonely spot? Just at that moment his father pulled up in front of a large, yellow-painted building at the head of the valley. On a sign on the façade tall, white letters gleamed in a rainbow arc: The Norwegian Organ and Harmonium Works. Jonas found it hard to believe that something as thrilling as this could be hidden away deep in the forest. A man greeted Haakon Hansen courteously when he stepped out of the car, as if he were a visiting prince. “Welcome to Snertingdal,” the man said. Snertingdal—to Jonas it sounded as full of promise as Samarkand.

First they were ushered into the workshop where the pipes were bored. Jonas knew a fair bit about organs, but nothing about how they were made. He was so taken with the carpentry skills of a man working on a console with a manual keyboard that he had to be dragged away to the drawing office, from which they also had a grand view of the valley and the mill next door. To the accompaniment of a droning saw his father pored over the drawings for the new organ for Grorud Church—since that was, of course, why they were here; his father had been informed that work on the instrument would soon be finished. Enormous charts on a tilted drawing board showed the organ from different angles. His father nodded and smiled, traced lines with his fingers and enquired about details which meant nothing to Jonas. To him it looked like a cathedral, or the designs for some fantastical machine.

14 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

After a while he began to discover crossover points between lines, eventually he even found one line that ran in a circle. He would have liked to stay down there for days, becoming part of the network, until he realized that he had reached Kievskaja station, a short step from his hotel. Later he would study the patterns on the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral and visit the Kremlin with all its undreamt-of treasures; he would see monasteries and churches with incandescent icons and glittering domes, but for Jonas Wergeland nothing could compare with what he had experienced, the sights he had seen, in the underground: a maze of sunken palaces. “In Moscow,” he would later say, “I learned that sometimes you have to go down into the depths in order to see the light.”

As he left Grorud station behind him, something told him that the Moscow experience was about to repeat itself, that something which had until now lain hidden awaited him. His current job with NRK was also the happy outcome of a story about going astray. In many ways it was the tale of needing a bathroom and making, therefore, a bit of a detour only, when all but sitting on the toilet, to be offered the chance to fill a vacancy. Now, though, he suspected that there was a sequel to this story, that his job as an announcer was merely the first—possibly dull—stage along a path that might almost have been said to lead to sunken palaces.

This suspicion was confirmed a moment later when he pushed open the main door of the church and that lofty room lay before him, suddenly much warmer, much brighter, much richer in scents and sensations than before. Myrrh, the thought flashed through his mind. Like a child in Sunday school, sticking goldfish onto a drawing of a fishing net in a book. Like Christmas Eve, he thought, in the days when the church was still a place filled with anticipation, with swelling organ music and colored light from stained-glass windows. In the days before anyone told you there was no God.

Jonas Wergeland was playing the organ. Or rather: not playing, but weaving, playing Johann Sebastian Bach, causing transparent worlds to pour from the organ casing, causing a succession of veils to drop down over the lofty room. His thoughts flew in all directions. Forward in time. Back in time. Often, on his way home from school or from piano lessons he had popped into the church, where his father was the organist. On a couple of occasions—during serious crises in his life—he had lain on the red carpet in front of the altar, feeling as though he were dead. Then his father had played, usually fugues, and he had walked out again like a soul resurrected. To Jonas it seemed that his father played life into him. Blew life into a dead thing. “This is a control center,” his father had said, pointing to the instrument’s complicated keyboard. Jonas was more inclined to call it a rescue center. He did not think of his father as an organist, but as a lifesaver. Maybe that was why, at an early age, he decided that this was what he, too, would be.

Jonas Wergeland sat on the organ bench in the church of his childhood, playing, weaving music into being, weaving thoughts into being, smiling as he pictured his mother’s horrified face, the look that met him when, as a boy, he shot up from the bottom of the bath gulping for air. She never spotted Daniel—a reassuring element—until it was too late. His brother would be perched on the toilet seat in the corner with the stopwatch they used when they went skating or lay in front of the radio listening to broadcasts of various sporting championships, as if they did not trust the lap times and final results quoted by the commentators.

“Blast!” Daniel always exclaimed, in dismay and delight—heedless of his mother’s stricken expression. “He flippin’ well did it again. A minute and a half.”

“You owe me five krone,” Jonas would gasp, his face tinged with blue, not altogether unlike the image of Krishna in Indian paintings.

Åse Hansen, normally the most even-tempered member of the family, remarkable for her stoic composure even when Rakel did not come home from parties or some ill-mannered relative ruined a Christmas dinner, was for a long time worried sick every time Jonas sneaked off to the bathroom and she heard the water start to run. It played merry hell with her nerves to know that if she peeked round the door she would see her son lying at the bottom of a full bathtub, holding his breath until his lungs screamed for oxygen. One day, when she could no longer turn a blind eye, she flung open the door just as Jonas’s head burst to the surface, with him coughing and spluttering from all the water he had swallowed. She gave him a telling off, asked him why on earth he was doing this.

“I’m practicing,” he wheezed.

“For what?”

“To save lives.”

Well, there was really no arguing with that. His mother sniffed some remark or other and closed the door, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. But Jonas was in deadly earnest. Ahead of him lay a summer during which he would establish his goal in life. He practiced with all the perseverance of the perfectionist. And he became very good.

Some people go through life without sparing the most profound existential questions more than an occasional heavy sigh. They want simply to live. Not to live for anything. For them it is enough just to scrape some money together, to seduce someone. And if that doesn’t do it, you can always go parachuting. To what extent such people are fortunate is not something we will go into here, because Jonas Wergeland belonged to another branch of humanity, to that group who from a very early age, possibly a little too early, begin to reflect on the purpose and the meaning of life. This question was as obscure for Jonas as it was crystal-clear for Daniel: as far as his older brother was concerned the whole point of life was to be the best. At everything, no matter what. Daniel belonged to that category of Norwegian who from the moment they were born seemed intent on dedicating their lives to proving the truth of Gro Harlem Brundtland’s later assertion that “it is typically Norwegian to be good.” For Daniel, the whole point was to be able to ascend the winner’s rostrum, be it a high one like Mount Everest or a low-lying one like a woman’s mount of Venus.

Jonas, on the other hand, had come to the conclusion that the purpose of life was to make a name for oneself—the reason for this need be nothing more mysterious than that he was distantly related to the people in the Book of Genesis. Although, it could of course also have had something to do with the fact that he liked to walk around town looking at all the shop signs: Ingwald Nielsen, Thv. L. Holm. At night some names, such as that of Ferner Jacobsen, were even written in neon. He could stand for ages on Egertorg, staring at the jeweller’s where Aunt Laura had begun her career, admiring the lettering proclaiming david andersen. More than fame itself, Jonas longed to see his name in lights. The world would read his name and know that it stood for something of great worth, right up there alongside silver, gold and precious stones.

Jonas considered many different options. For some weeks—apropos this business with the names—he was quite convinced that the whole purpose of life was to have a dish named after you. He had long been used to hearing people refer to such culinary delights as Janson’s Temptation or beef à la Lindström: names which might not conjure up images of silver or gold, but which certainly made the mouth water. His mother was surprised by the interest displayed by her younger son in the kitchen. But after several unsuccessful, scorched attempts at what he called a Jonas cake: a concoction involving bananas, cardamom and liquorice gums which had Daniel, his guinea pig, hanging over the toilet, throwing up—he started to think bigger.

13 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

Scarcely an hour earlier, after collecting a pile of sheet music, he had closed the gate of the house he would soon be moving into and which people would dub Villa Wergeland, and set off down the road he had walked every day of his childhood. Wherever he turned his eye he risked becoming lost in memories: a life-threatening bonfire, the windows Ivan broke, the wallet in the ditch which brought him a heaven-sent fifty-krone reward, the magnetic, nipple-shaped doorbell on the front door of Anne Beate Corneliussen’s building. He sauntered along, wishing to prolong the poignant aspect of the moment. There was a strange mood in the air too. It felt as though there was no longer the discoverer anyone living in the houses he passed. Even the shops looked deserted. It was an exceptionally dull day. Damp. The last leaves had fallen from the trees. The ground was covered with an indeterminate gunge, as if after an incredibly drunken party. The blocks of flats and the shopping center reminded him of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union. The whole of life seemed suddenly drab and dreary. And yet—in spite of all this—he felt hopeful. As if he knew that behind all the greyness lay something else, something surprising. Something is about to happen, he told himself.

As his eye was drawn to a couple of solitary clusters of rowan berries, two rosy, bright spots in all the greyness, he found himself thinking of another grey day in his life. The year before, off his own bat, he had gone to Moscow with a friend and colleague from the NRK purchasing department who was attending a television conference there. They had stayed at the Hotel Ukraine, one of Stalin’s seven so-called “wedding-cake” buildings from the fifties, all of which looked like squat, bulky versions of the Empire State Building. One morning he had crossed the grey River Moscow, meaning to walk to the Kremlin. Ahead of him lay Kalinina Avenue, broad and surprisingly empty-looking, despite the cars. The weather was clear, but a haze still managed to leach everything of color. The distances seemed enormous, and almost in order to escape from those vast, empty spaces thick with the fumes from low-octane gasoline, he took a right turn which led him into some narrower streets. Here he found more people. Women in headscarves, carrying baskets. And there were lines. Two in one short stretch. For eggs, perhaps, he thought. Or toilet paper? To these people, even the magazines he had bought at Fornebu airport, with their glossy adverts, would be objects as rare as rocks from the moon. He walked along, looking and looking, trying to take in the dreariness around him. Brown, grey, black. Hulking, homogenous buildings. Everything covered in a thin layer of grime. He fancied that he was wandering through a sort of populated desert. Always, when he came to a new place, he went exploring. As a small boy he had transformed every house he visited into an unknown continent. He was a Columbus, stepping ashore. The threshold was a beach. The hallway a jungle, the stairs a mountain, every cupboard a cave. But Moscow: so gloomy, so dispiritingly vast. This was obviously not a city one simply strolled through. Best be getting back, he thought, before I am engulfed by all this greyness.

The problem was, however, that he no longer knew where he was. And as if that weren’t enough, he desperately needed to go to the toilet. He cursed his bad habit of drinking too much coffee at lunchtime, while casting about in hopes of finding some building that was open to the public. He fell in with a stream of people who seemed to have been caught by a current and were being swept towards a façade with a large M over the doors. He had always liked the letter M, took this to be a good omen. He was not prepared, however, for the sight which met his eyes, for the way the stony desert gave way to a shimmering oasis.

In his mind he was in Moscow, in reality he was approaching Grorud shopping center, casting a nostalgic glance in the direction of Wolfgang Michaelsen’s garden where every autumn as boys they had gone scrumping for glossy, green apples so juicy and so sweet that they even merited running the risk of the Michaelsens’ Rottweiler getting loose. There was a slight haze in the air, the sort of autumn mist that quickens the senses and which, rather than concealing things, seemed to bring them closer, even things that were a long way off. Chet Baker weather, he thought to himself. He felt nervous. Before him lay a sight which triggered memories of childhood theatricals, packed gym halls. The fluttering in his stomach might otherwise have been attributed to his own misgivings, a dawning sense of having come to a dead end. In his life. The problem had to do with his work at NRK TV. He was an announcer, and popular. And yet he wasn’t happy. He did not understand it. At some point in his life he had abandoned all of the goals he had set for himself as a youth. He had thrown in the towel halfway through a course in architecture, having previously dropped out of a course in astrophysics. By chance—and not really caring one way or the other—he had allowed himself to be led into a tiny television studio. For many years he had been more than happy with his good fortune, with having found a job where he could do so little, and yet, it appeared, mean so much to so many. But now it seemed that an old ambition was once more stirring. Something he had forgotten. Wanted to forget. His conscience still pricked him. He caught himself looking for a loophole, a way out, a way forward. Which may have been why now, on this day especially, despite his sense of confusion, he suddenly felt optimistic. He had a strong feeling that something awaited him. That it was only minutes away. That something, a curtain, would be pulled back and something else, he did not know what, would be revealed.

As in Moscow. Because, when he penetrated beyond the grey façade with the steel M over the doors it was like stepping into the foyer of a theatre. As though someone up in the flies had dropped a richly hued stage set into place right before his very eyes. He walked along broad, brightly lit corridors, gazing round about him in disbelief; found a toilet without any problem. He had always set a lot of store by mazes and the possibilities these presented. You set out to sail to India, and wind up instead on an unknown continent. You go looking for a toilet and stumble upon a metro station, a veritable treasure house. He seized his chance, followed the crowd, popped a five kopek coin in the slot and passed through the barrier. Moments later he was being transported down into the bowels of the earth on the steepest, longest escalator he had ever ridden, a wooden one, at that; then he found himself in a vast, glittering white chamber hung with magnificent chandeliers. A sunken palace. He was Alice in Wonderland, the victim of a supernatural occurrence. He took the hall in which he found himself for a glittering ballroom until a train came rushing in and stopped right in front of him.

Out of sheer curiosity he hopped on, only to alight at the next station—Plostsjad Revoljutsii, he later learned: Revolution Square. It was like entering a museum. The station concourse was full of bronze sculptures. As far as he could tell, they represented the different trades. He was about to take a closer look at a statue of a sailor when he almost bumped into a shabby-looking character sweeping the floor. The man stopped, leaned on his brush and examined Jonas. The look he gave him contrasted sharply with his down-at-heel appearance. Keen eyes studied the small Norwegian flag which Jonas was wearing in his lapel while in Moscow, a badge intended to serve much the same purpose as the tag on a dog collar: indicating which embassy to contact were he to collapse in the street. The cleaner stood for a while staring into space, as if deep in thought. Then: “Gustav Vigeland,” he said at length, extending his arms to the statues round about them. Jonas nodded. There were certain similarities. “Gustav Vigeland,” he responded. These two words pretty much said it all. Forged a bond between them. Encapsulated a whole story. Or so Jonas thought, until the Russian leaned towards him: “Fascism!” he hissed, pointing eloquently at the sculptures. Jonas smiled uncertainly, tried to nod politely before continuing his tour. This man could easily be a professor of art, he thought, but now here he is, sweeping railway platforms for holding certain incorrect opinions on art.

Jonas was right underneath Red Square, but he was not interested in taking the escalator up, out. Why see Lenin’s tomb when he could see this? He wanted to stay down here in this brilliantly illuminated secret. Here, in Moscow, they had built their sculpture parks underground. Jonas wandered on and off trains for hours, endeavoring to see as many stations as possible. A subterranean grand tour, he thought to himself. Proof that man had evolved beyond the caveman stage. He strolled through halls faced with every sort of polished stone, a genuine geological museum. Everything was spotlessly clean. Jonas walked upon gleaming tiles, down colonnades, amid copper and steel, surveying all manner of ornamentation: mosaics, reliefs, stained glass, statues of pilots and scientists. All of this decoration sprang from the ideal of bringing art to the people. He thought of his brother’s favorite writer, Agnar Mykle: “Socialism is clean bodies and classical music in the factories.” And art in the metro stations, Jonas might have added. During his visit, Jonas came across nothing that told him more about the Soviet state and, not least, its part in the last war. He had seen something like this before: the Town Hall in Oslo. He went on walking and thinking, considering. What, today, was the greatest public space? Might it not be television, the box, the square common to all? In other words: wasn’t that the place for art—in palaces of a sort, beamed into
people’s living rooms?

12 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair starts tomorrow, and in a few short hours I’ll be on a plane to Germany. (Hastily preparing for a Tools of Change panel I’m going to be on a mere six hours after I land . . .) Anyway, I will be blogging for the FBF site, and hope to update Three Percent with that info, but in the meantime, I thought we’d offer up a special treat this week and serialize the first few pages of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife.

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

Jupiter

Behold this man. Behold this man, as he feels three tugs on the rope and slowly, after smiling uncertainly, proceeds to traverse, to edge out onto those dauntingly airy galleries. Behold this man as he inches across the rock face; see how with the caution of the novice he feels his way forward using all of his limbs, his whole body in fact, before shifting his weight from one foot to the other. I can sense how frightened, how truly terrified he is, and yet how full of the determination to do this, to see it through, make it to the top. And then, suddenly, as if something has ground to a halt, he freezes. He shuts his eyes. He looks as though he is listening to the wind, while at the same time concentrating hard, trying to place the scent emanating from the rock against which he is pressed. The bright sunlight glitters off the cliff face, sparkles in the runnels of meltwater. As far as I can see he is holding his breath. I have known it all along. This is the moment of truth. On a ledge, with a drop of hundreds of meters into the abyss only a step away. Here you live, or you die.

“This is a second I shall remember.”

Then he does the one thing I have begged him not to do. He half turns, while apparently hanging on tight with both hands. He looks out. Looks down. As if intent on defying something. Proving something. For a moment he seems to be completely dazzled by the Slingsby glacier far below. Or no, not dazzled, but stunned, panic-stricken. Psyched out, as they say. I refuse to believe it. That this man could be afraid of anything, a man who brought thousands of cars to a halt on Oslo’s Town Hall Square and who, by his mere presence, drew a cyclone to himself; a man who has been with three fair maids at once and who would not hesitate to dive to a depth of fifteen meters without an oxygen tank. Yet he hangs there, rigid. Still holding his breath. Or am I wrong? Does he bend down ever so slightly? I think—I know it sounds strange, but I almost believe he is trying to kneel.

One hand fumbles with the knot, as if he means to undo himself from the rope. “Sit!” I call sharply. “Don’t look down.” But he goes on staring, seeming more mesmerized than frightened now. Or infuriated perhaps, contemptuous. As if this were a set-to with Norway itself, a confrontation for which he has waited years—to stand on the edge of an abyss, without a safety net. I can see temptation written large on his face. He could let himself fall. He could realize the cliché which will forever be attached to his story: that of his downfall. The final, glorious headline.

“You’re perfectly safe,” I shout. “It’s all in your head.” I’m jittery too now, I check that the coil of rope is securely fixed around the sharp rock next to me. I know I can trust Martin, who has led the way, hammering in pitons at regular intervals, and is now out of sight behind some large boulders, a short rope-length from the bottom of the chimney. Martin has climbed everything from the Bonatti pillar to Ama Dablam. But never with such a partner, a man who—according to the newspapers—lost his head and shot a woman straight through the heart. I am uneasy. The uncertainty of the figure huddled against the rock face radiates towards me. I may have miscalculated. Perhaps I should have said no after all. Then he turns to me. His face is calm. I can see that he is breathing, drawing the cool mountain air deep into his lungs, hungrily. He smiles, even raises his hand in a wave, traverses onwards.

Behold this man. Behold this man, the bearer of a mystery.

The rest of the climb went well, remarkably well. Down by the stone cottage at Bandet earlier that day I had been worried. A couple of times on the way up the ridge, on the toughest, most exposed stretch, I had considered turning back. I could see that he was gasping for breath, he looked a little lightheaded. The air was keen and thin. Over one stretch we secured our passage with a length of rope—mainly for his sake—and when we started climbing again he dislodged a rock which went clattering down the mountainside, leaving a whiff of gunpowder behind it. An omen. His fleece clothes and the harness made him look like a child—truly, in this situation, like a helpless child. And, funnily enough, I felt responsible for him.

“Aren’t you a little afraid of heights?” I had asked him when we set out from Turtagrø that morning.

“I used to be. I’m a different person now,” he said.

We reached Hjørnet—the Corner, slipped off our rucksacks. It was early in the season, and there was more snow than I was used to. Wetter and dirtier. We wouldn’t be able to switch to climbing shoes. It went fine, though, with no great problems—even over the few meters of real climbing up the Heftyes Renne, transformed now into a chill, slippery, icy chimney.

We reached the top around midday. I shall never forget the look of triumph on his face, the way he stretched his arms up and out. To the spring sky. All those years inside. Down. And now, only a couple of years after that first intoxicating taste of freedom: on the roof of Norway. Right at the very top. Everything below us seemed much lower, markedly so. I heard him murmur, partly to us, partly to himself: “I never thought I would make it.”

And a moment later: “But I knew I had it in me.”

We sat down beside the little cairn. He studied the commemorative plaque fixed to the stone as if expecting to find his name inscribed there. There too. I took the landscape shots I needed. He said not a word, just sat there looking at the view, could not seem to get enough of this, the most spectacular panorama in Norway. The massive Jostedal Glacier, Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind and all the other peaks of Jotunheimen. Alpine forms with peaks and crests, carved and gouged out by the ice. “Organ pipes,” he muttered suddenly. “This has to be the world’s biggest organ, listen to the wind!” From the massif on which we sat, two jagged ridges wound off like petrified vertebrae. “What are they?” he asked. “Kjerringa og Mannen,” I said—the Woman and the Man—and instantly regretted it. A strange look came over his face.

Behold this man.

We prepared for the downward journey. Just as I was wondering how he was going to cope with the abseiling, he turned the wrong way, towards the sheer drop to Skagadalen. I was about to call out, but the cry stuck in my throat. He stretched his arms out to the sides, as if about to do a swallow dive.

Why did he do it?

One has to start somewhere, and a good, not to say almost perfect, departure point—or even, to stick with the climbing motif: viewpoint—from which to examine Jonas Wergeland’s life would be another stony edifice, another gallery, a hallowed hall, a room with walls of granite, and an autumn day in the 1980s—an autumn day which would bring with it deep sorrow and wistful joy, as well as a strange mystery, an incident bordering on the scandalous. Nor is it entirely inappropriate that Jonas should be at the organ, an instrument befitting his history and the power which for so long he had exerted over the minds, not to say the souls, of the Norwegian people. Jonas Wergeland is playing the organ, framed by its gleaming, monumental face, making the whole church tremble with his playing, making the very stone, the bedrock of Norway, sing. He is not an organist, but he handles the instrument almost like a professional musician; he is an organist by nature, he might have been made for this part, this pose. No wonder he once replied when asked, in Samarkand, what he did for a living: “I am an organist.”

....
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