1 September 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in a work only to have the work identify and criticize your lack of attention. Yes, my phone was next to me at all times while reading Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part, and often I was tempted to dash off 140 character reactions to the work, only to be shamed by it a few lines down in the text. This is part of the charm that is The Invented Part. Weaved throughout it are reflections and criticisms of our shift from the written word on a page to a screen. The timing of the publication of the English translation is perfect in light of the behaviors of our current news cycle, the relationships our elected officials have with Twitter, email, the methods used to inform themselves of “reality,” and our current dilema of phrasing through what is real and what is fake.

The Invented Part can be summarized as creating a discourse around the question: How do writer’s view their craft, reality, and relationships with readers and with those individuals who play a role in their lives? The response is addressed through distinguishing the invented part—the part that is created by a writer—and the real part—the reality leveraged by the writer. Through this work, the protagonist, The Writer, draws or focus to the question of our relationship with writers, books, and technology and the literary industry, which frustrates The Writer and causes him in turn to question the role and future physical presence of literature. The Writer is disillusioned with the state of the literary industry and thus decides to travel to CERN and merge with the Higgs boson, resulting in a transformation into invisibility and omnipresence. The publication of the English translation of The Invented Part also coincided with the five-year anniversary of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, also known as (to the dislike of most physicists) the God Particle and largely believed to provide matter with mass.

My only disappointment came in reading the summary of the work on the book’s cover, as I approached the work with excitement believing that it would tackle such a complex physics concept within the literary sphere. As I worked through this quite long piece of literature with this expectation, I reached the end with great disappointment on the topic of the Higgs boson. It appears that the transformation into the Higgs boson was merely an anthropomorphism for omniscience. Being that most people would likely believe that something called the “God Particle” would explain the entire universe, the reference works in this sense because The Invented Part’s main tool is omniscient narration (with the ability to change reality).

Divided into seven parts, The Invented Part begins with a section entitled The Real Character, which is focused on a family (The Young Man, The Young Woman, and The Boy), which is formed due to a common love for a writer’s work and ends in separation, although both parties continue to read the same works by the writer. Part Two focuses of the unusual experience of The Young Man’s and The Young Women’s stay at the home of The (disappeared) Writer during the making of their documentary film on The Writer’s life, accompanied with an excursion through the early life of The Writer’s eccentric sister, who marries into a family (based in the land of Abracadabra) that is hard to distinguish from the Kardashians, or a family with many company brands (think steak, hotels, failed universities) and vast amounts of property, but with no indication of how the money is really made. Part Three focuses on The Writer’s experience at a hospital as he approaches the age where pain is now a matter of death or a non-issue and is no longer something that can be casually ignored. Part Four contains The Writer’s personal notes for a work in development concerning the relationship between the Fitzgeralds and the Murphys, written in the biji style and defined as “curious anecdotes, nearly blind quotations, random musings, philosophical speculations, private theories regarding intimate matters, criticism of other works, and anything that is owner and author deems appropriate.” The focus in Part Five is the relationship between a father, a friend of The Writer, and his son through the father’s relationship with music during his teenage years. Part Six brings us back to The Young Man and The Young Woman during an encounter after their separation, where they meet on the stairs to a museum. Finally, in Part Seven, the reader experiences The Writer’s motivations, insecurities, and what appear to be the beginning of his first work after the disillusionment and transformation.

It was no easy task to get through The Invented Part, mainly because the work presents life experiences in a way that the reader cannot help but reflect on each example, instance, and occurrence presented in the work in real-time. Fresán does this by presenting the reader with familiarities—Pink Floyd, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Mary Shelley, David Bowie—and uses those references to call upon reflection of these bodies of work to explore both our relationship with literature and books surrounding us and the writer, and the writer’s relationships with the same, and with the feeling of actual experience rather than that of a college lecture. Fresán awards the reader who is not only well-read but also well-aware of music originating between the 1960s and 1980s. For example, the following is a list of the literary references by author I noted while reading the work, but I am self-aware enough to know that I did not catch them all.

Borges
Faulkner
Fitzgerald
Dostoyevsky
Mann
Bronte
Nabakov
Burroughs
Beckett
Lovecraft
Tolkien
Quinn
Delillo
Dante
Shikibu
Updike
Conrad
Vonnegut
Hemingway
Wolfe
Lowry
Bradbury
Shelley
Huxley
Gaddis
Flaubert
Amis

Further, Fresán has a special way of describing (inventing) the normal and mundane. For example, airports in The Invented Part are not just airports:

Airports are like enormous and devouring leviathans run aground on the shore of all things, too heavy to be pushed back out to sea. Airports are like cathedrals of an always late and retarded faith . . . and airports are the sanctuary where everyone prays and begs that their flights leave on time, and that they arrive on time, and that their luggage doesn’t disappear in some wrinkle in space-time, and that everything that goes up does come down but doesn’t fall amen. Airports are like hospitals: you know when you go in but not when you’ll come out and you sit there like something patient, something passing.


And oversharing and not just oversharing:

Being missed has gone missing. Being familiar with so much doesn’t mean knowing more. There was a time when the definitive proof of success was the very ability to disappear, to be impossible to find, to have nobody know where you are. To be unreachable. To be outside everything.


Lastly and importantly, The Invented Part contains warnings for the future of the book in our age of technological screens and our inability to be disconnected. For example, it is stated that:

E-readers, supposedly, help to facilitate and accelerate the reading experience, but actually it seems, end up removing the desire to continue readings. But—breaking ancient news, stope the presses—we still read at the same speed as Aristotle. About four hundred fifty words a minute. So, all that external electric velocity at our disposal ends up colliding with our more deliberate internal electricity. In other words: machines are faster and faster but we are not. We haven’t gained much and, along the way, we’ve lost the exquisite pleasure of leisure, which is how and where the stuff of hopes and dreams is made. We live and create, determined to increase out machines’ capacity to store a number of books that we’ll never be able to read. . . . It seems to me that the paper book is nearer out rhythm (there are nights when I deeply envy the environment of the nineteenth century when it comes to reading nineteenth-century novels by candlelight).


In closing, The Invented Part is a work that I will repeatedly refer to, interact with, and re-read as it captures and questions my relationship with literature in magical and embarrassing ways that will continually change as I refamiliarize myself with the classics, expose myself to new works, and go through the process of aging. This tome will be proudly placed next to my copies of 2666 and People of Paper, both of which also relay the same essence, but through vastly different methods.

29 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the first time ever, this Saturday (July 1st), Open Letter Books will have a pop-up shop in Downtown Rochester. From 12-2 and from 4-6, we’ll be outside of Hart’s Local Grocers displaying a wide selection of our books.

We’ve never done anything like this before, but since it’s the weekend of the Rochester International Jazz Festival it’s the perfect time to bring some great international literature to the people.

And to celebrate all of this, we’ll be selling the books at a pretty significant discount: any title you want for $10, any two for $18, or, any three for $20. That’s basically a 60% discount.

Another incentive: We will raffle off a year’s subscription to Open Letter (ten books!) at 6pm sharp. So swing by before then and enter the drawing!

Not really an incentive, but still: I’ll be there the whole day eating some amazing Hart’s sandwich or other and probably drinking some beers from one (or many!) of the great local breweries that they stock. While doing this, I’ll happily (if not tipsily) answer questions about Open Letter, publishing, translations, our books, authors, traveling to countries to find titles to publish, and baseball.

Hope to see you on Saturday!

16 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Given all the Two Month Review posts and everything else, hopefully you’ll have heard of Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part by now. But in case you haven’t, below you’ll find the press release that we sent out with copies of the book to all reviewers and booksellers. (If you’re a bookseller or reviewer and need a copy, you know where to find me.)

There is a bit of an update as well. In addition to publishing The Invented Part , The Bottom of the Sky , and Mantra , we’ve just signed on The Dreamed Part the second book in the trilogy, which we’ll (hopefully) bring out in 2019.

Remember, if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off through our website.

“A lively if sometimes-disjointed paean to creativity. Invented, and deeply inventive as well, an exemplary postmodern novel that is both literature and entertainment.”—Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)



One of the most respected Spanish-language authors of our times, Rodrigo Fresán (Kensington Gardens) has been praised by the likes of John Banville, Jonathan Lethem, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Roberto Bolaño, and his work has earned comparisons to David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and many others.

That might all sound like hyperbole, but won’t as soon as you start reading The Invented Part, the first book in a projected trilogy (The Dreamed Part was recently released in Spanish) this novel mixes high concept science-in-fiction ideas with hilariously manic lists, and deep dives into the history of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Kubrick’s 2001, The Kinks, and more.

The plot of The Invented Part is simple enough: an aging writer whose books about how writers and writing are no longer the preferred flavor of the literary world wants to change—and extend—his life by breaking into CERN and the Large Hadron Collider so that he can merge with the so-called “god particle” and become a consciousness outside of time, one that can rewrite reality according to his whims.

Although the overarching plot is pretty wild, the book is filled with heart and humanity, with each chapter taking a different stylistic approach to the writer’s life and times, opening with a moving story of his near-death experience at a beach while his parents’ relationship falls apart, and including a section on the writer’s sister’s marriage into a wealthy family that is as insufferable as it is bizarre, resulting in her own madness. There’s also an anxiety-ridden section with the writer in the ER, panicked that he’s having a heart attack, which triggers a tidal wave of story ideas that he hopes to be able to one day write. (If only he can merge with the god particle!)

There are also incredible sections—half historical, half invented—about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Gerald and Sara Murphy, about William Burroughs, about 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which add to the underlying exploration of the relationship between great art and the artists that give rise to it.

For all of its inventiveness and depth, The Invented Part is also an incredibly readable book. Fresán is an irrepressible and consummate stylist whose writing is imbued with great intelligence and insight, pop culture references and literary hijinks, unforgettable characters and mind-bending ideas. It’s a testament to the power and expanse of fiction, and reaffirms Fresán as one of the greatest novelists of our time. Overall, it’s a joy to immerse yourself in, and, like the best of authors, will leave you craving more.

Which is good, since Open Letter has already signed on two more Fresán titles, The Bottom of the Sky (May 2018) and Mantra (TBD), with plans to complete the “Parts” trilogy as well. The manuscript of The Bottom of the Sky is available for interested reviewers, and Fresán is available for interviews both in English (by phone) and Spanish (written).

Also worth noting that translator Will Vanderhyden—whose other translations include Carlos Labbé’s Loquela and Navidad & Matanza—received an NEA Translation Fellowship and a Lannan Fellowship for his work on this book. He too is available for interviews or to answer any questions about Fresán’s other books.

12 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I asked the winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Award to send in some comments—or a video—about the prize, their project, etc. The first to arrive is the following from Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson about their translation of Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House.

We are absolutely thrilled to have won the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, for the very obvious reason that it’s a great honour, but also because Chronicle of the Murdered House was our first co-translation, and proved to be such a happy collaboration that we are now working on a second project. Then there is the book itself, which is one of the most remarkable works either of us has ever read, and a fascinating challenge for us as translators: all those different voices—the hysterical, anguished prose of André, the Pharmacist’s rather pompous accounts, Nina’s wheedling letters to Valdo, Ana’s guilt-laden outpourings and so on. There can rarely have been a more searing and, at times, gut-wrenching description of death and decay or, indeed, of the lengths to which sexual desire can go. Our thanks to Chad and all at Open Letter for thinking we were up to the challenge! And thanks, too, to the judges for being as blown away by the novel as we were.



12 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Antoine Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo, translated by J. T. Mahany has won the first ever Albertine Prize—a reader’s choice award celebrating contemporary French fiction. The book had to go through two rounds of public voting, moving from a longlist of ten titles, to a three title shortlist before eventually winning.



Here’s a bit from the official press release:

One of Volodine’s funniest books, Bardo or Not Bardo (Open Letter Books) takes place in his universe of failed revolutions, radical shamanism, and off-kilter nomenclature. In each of these seven vignettes, someone dies and has to make his way through the Tibetan afterlife, also known as the Bardo, where souls wander for forty-nine days before being reborn with the help of the Book of the Dead.

Antoine Volodine is the primary pseudonym of a French writer who has published twenty books under this name at les éditions du Seuil, several of which are available in English translation. He also publishes under the names Lutz Bassmann (éditions Verdier) and Manuela Draeger (éditions de l’Olivier and Ecole des Loisirs). Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the “post-exoticism” writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements. Together, these works constitute one of the most inventive, ambitious projects of contemporary writing.

It’s amazing that Open Letter titles have won two major awards over the past week, and spectacular that Antoine Volodine is getting some more attention for his ambitious, fascinating body of work. I want to take two seconds though to sing the praises of J. T. Mahany, who came to the University of Rochester a few years ago, straight out of undergrad, discovered Volodine while he was in grad school, learned all he could about translation, and then won this prize. It’s always gratifying to see someone grow and succeed like that, but it’s especially meaningful that this happened to J. T. Incredibly smart and very humble, J. T. is a perfect exemplar of the hard-working translator. He puts a ton of thought into his translations, and is always open to editing and other suggestions. His attention to detail and his knowledge of Volodine’s gigantic oeuvre makes him an absolute joy to work with. He’s currently getting his MFA from the University of Arkansas, and I think you’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future.

Going back to Bardo or Not Bardo, a couple big fans of the press helped make this award happen. First up, Tom Roberge wrote a piece for the Albertine site about the book:

Volodine’s genius is apparent from the first page. Like all great writers, the most enduring, he approaches his subject matter and characters with a dazzling blend of empathy, pathos, and humor, all of which creates a pleasantly beguiling reading experience. In Bardo or Not Bardo we’re presented with a series of recently deceased individuals who must, of course, pass through Bardo (the Tibetan afterlife) before being reincarnated. Volodine, however, echoing Samuel Beckett’s macabre-absurdist tradition, refuses to allow anyone to attain enlightenment without a certain number of missteps, misunderstandings, and outright failures. These vignettes are rife with both slapstick comedy and cutting political commentary, with mysticism and raw fear, with optimism and dread. Taken together, the collection offers a beautiful symposium on the nature of change and self-awareness, something that is—sadly—very rare indeed, but much needed and greatly appreciated .

And then, after the book make the shortlist, Jeff Waxman gave this presentation.



Thanks to everyone who made this possible, and if you haven’t read Volodine yet, this is a great place to start! It’s available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website.

And if you’re interested in the background to the prize itself, check out this short video.

5 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The tenth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced this evening at The Folly in New York City, and at The Millions with Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, winning for fiction, and Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated by Yvette Siegert, winning for poetry.



With four books on the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist, Margaret Jull Costa had pretty good odds that one of her projects would win the prize. This is the first time Jull Costa, Robin Patterson, and Open Letter Books have received the award.

According to BTBA judge Jeremy Garber (Powell’s Books), “Though it took longer than 50 years to finally appear in English, Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House was well worth the wait. Epic in scope and stunning in its execution, the late Brazilian author’s 1959 masterpiece is a resounding accomplishment. Thanks to the translational prowess of Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, Cardoso’s saga of familial scheming and salacious scandal deservingly comes to an even wider audience.”

Fellow judge Mark Haber (Brazos Bookstore) adds “Chronicle has hints of Dostoyevsky, Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner, yet the DNA is wholly Cardoso’s, who was not only a friend, but a mentor to Clarice Lispector. This novel is not only beautifully written and strangely profound, but a joy to read. The dramas of a prestigious family in a provincial Brazilian jungle, complete with gossip, backstabbing, cross-dressing and suicide attempts all take place beneath a single roof. There’s a fully-formed universe in this run-down mansion rotting away in the woods. Chronicle of the Murdered House is a novel about family, trust, madness, betrayal, human nature, all heavy themes really, yet handled with aplomb. . . . its translation feels long overdue.”

Extracting the Stone of Madness is the fourth collection of Alejandra Pizarnik’s to be translated by Yvette Siegert, but the first to win the Best Translated Book Award. It is published by New Directions—who has won the BTBA on three past occasions, twice for fiction, once for poetry—and collects all of Pizarnik’s middle and late works, including some posthumous pieces.

Judge Emma Ramadan (Riffraff Bookstore) said, “The judges were extremely impressed by Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation of Abdellatif Laâbi’s In Praise of Defeat, but ultimately chose Yvette Siegert’s translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness as this year’s poetry winner. It’s a book screaming and barking with jagged solitude and beautiful pain, each poem’s broken melody attempting to fill a void we can all see lurking. Yvette Siegert perfectly inhabits Pizarnik’s tortuous, vivid world and allows us to do the same.”

For the sixth year in a row, the winning books will receive $10,000 each (split equally between the authors and translators) thanks to funding from the Amazon Literary Partnership. Over this period, the Amazon Literary Partnership has contributed more than $120,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

“By sharing new voices with English-language readers, the Best Translated Book Awards highlight literary excellence from around the globe while also shrinking the world a bit, fostering empathy through storytelling,” said Neal Thompson, Amazon’s Director of Author and Publishing Relations. “The Amazon Literary Partnership is proud to continue its support of the diverse voices of BTBA’s international authors and their translators.”

Nine judges served on this year’s fiction jury: Trevor Berrett (The Mookse and the Gripes), Monica Carter (Salonica World Lit), Rachel Cordasco (Speculative Fiction in Translation), Jennifer Croft (translator, co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review), Lori Feathers (Interabang Books), Jeremy Garber (Powell’s Books), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), George Henson (World Literature Today, Latin American Literature Today, University of Oklahoma), and Steph Opitz (Marie Claire).

The poetry jury was made up of: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Becka McKay (writer and translator), and Emma Ramadan (translator, Riffraff Bookstore).

Past winners of the fiction award include: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman; The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen; Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai, and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan; Diorama by Rocío Cerón, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong; The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.

19 April 17 | Kaija Straumanis |

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee Nowhere to Be Found, Bae Suah is back, this time with Deborah Smith, translator of the Man Booker Prize winner_ The Vegetarian_ and founder of Tilted Axis, a UK-based press dedicated to publishing new works in translation.

In the book’s opening chapters, the narrator—who remains unnamed—falls into an icy river in the suburbs of Berlin. A Korean writer and student living in Germany, she begins to look back over the years, blurring lines between past and present as she examines her relationship with Joachim, her on-and-off, working class boyfriend, and M, her German tutor, a refined and enigmatic young woman she’s in love with. The contrast between these two partners and the tensions around language and class are fascinating, but I had a hard time just getting past how gorgeous the writing was.

The narrator describes M, setting the scene for their many discussions of music and language, “The rain water trickled down M’s pale, almost ghost-like forehead, down over her eyelids, still more sunken after her recent cold, and over her slightly-downward pointed nose. When she tilted her head upward, her lips appeared unbelievably thin and delicate, tapering elegantly even when she wasn’t smiling, flushed red as though suffused by the morning sunlight. The delicate, languidly prominent scaffolding of her cheekbones . . . If books and language were the symbol of M’s absolute world, then music was her inaccessible mind, her religion, her soul.”
The narrative is constantly shifting, pliable, and fluid, in both tense and setting. The construction seems effortless, allowing the narrator to sift through her life, her relationships, and most importantly the end of her relationship with M to find closure in it all. Her memory, one can’t forget, is imperfect—an approximation and perhaps a reinvention.

The style of the writing evokes the very music that seems to drive the story. Smith in an interview with Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn stated, “When I was translating her, the thing that I was most aware of was trying not to smooth out the weirdness too much. . . . It becomes quite hypnotic when you read it in Korean, and quite lyrical in places as well. She writes a lot about music, and the other thing that her style evokes is that. It’s more about the cadence of the sentence. The core book itself, the structure, is more about variations on a theme, and coming back to certain motifs rather than a straight chronology.”

Thankfully for readers, Bae Suah is prolific and Deborah Smith seems determined to bring these great books to English language readers.

12 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On May 1st, South Korean author Bae Suah (Recitation, A Greater Music, Nowhere to Be Found, and the forthcoming North Station) will be in Rochester, NY for TWO Reading the World Conversation Series events.



The first will take place in the Humanities Center at Rush Rhees Library on the University of Rochester’s campus from 12:30-2pm. Perfect for any students, faculty, etc., who are on campus and want a little lunchtime brain stimulation!

The second will take place at Nox Cocktail Lounge (Village Gate, 302 N. Goodman) from 6-7:30pm. A very bookish bar and restaurant, Nox is one of our favorite places to host events. Great space, great staff, great food, and great cocktails.

In terms of the events themselves, at both, Bae will be read a bit from all four of her translated books and will answer a series of questions about her craft and influences. I’ve already scripted the questions, so I can say with certainty that she’ll talk a bit about how she got her start—and the Korean literary scene in general—the impact of German literature (she’s translated Kafka, Sebald, Erpenbeck, and others into Korean) on her style and literary approach, the way she creates a landscape of consciousness in her books, and much more.

One of South Korea’s most highly acclaimed writers, Bae Suah is the author of five novels and more than ten short story collections, and has received both the Hanguk Ilbo and Tongseo literary prizes. Nowhere to Be Found, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Translations of her works have been widely praised for their beauty and precision, with Sophie Hughes summing it up wonderfully for Music & Literature:

The experience of reading the prize-winning Korean-born writer Bae Suah is simultaneously uncanny, estranting, and spellbinding, an effect that becomes perceptible the more you read . . . Bae Suah offers the chance to unknow—to see the every-day afresh and be defamiliarized with what we believe we know—which is no small offering.

So, if you’re in Rochester, you should definitely come out to one or both of these, and even if you’re not here, you should check out one of her books. Here’s the full info on the three that are already available:



Recitation (Translated by Deborah Smith)

The meeting between a group of emigrants and a mysterious, wandering actress in an empty train station sets the stage for Bae Suah’s fragmentary yet lyrical meditation on language, travel, and memory. As the actress recounts the fascinating story of her stateless existence, an unreliable narrator and the interruptions of her audience challenge traditional notions of storytelling and identity.



A Greater Music (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Near the beginning of A Greater Music, the narrator, a young Korean writer, falls into an icy river in the Berlin suburbs, where she’s been house-sitting for her on-off boyfriend Joachim. This sets into motion a series of memories that move between the hazily defined present and the period three years ago when she first lived in Berlin. Throughout, the narrator’s relationship with Joachim, a rough-and-ready metalworker, is contrasted with her friendship with M, an ultra-refined music-loving German teacher who was once her lover.



Nowhere to Be Found (Translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

A nameless narrator passes through her life, searching for meaning and connection in experiences she barely feels. For her, time and identity blur, and all action is reaction. She can’t quite understand what motivates others to take life seriously enough to focus on anything—for her existence is a loosely woven tapestry of fleeting concepts. From losing her virginity to mindless jobs and a splintered, unsupportive family, the lessons learned have less to do with the reality we all share and more to do with the truth of the imagination, which is where the narrator focuses to discover herself.

7 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We don’t post these updates near as frequently as we should, but here’s a rundown of some interesting recent publicity pieces for our books.



Frontier by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Interview between Can Xue and Porochista Khakpour (Words Without Borders)

PK: You often write of surreal realities. “Other worlds,” one might even say, or “dream realities” or the realities of subconscious. But what do you think when the surface is also so surreal? For example, America right now is in chaotic, almost psychedelic, upheaval. What happens when the truth is stranger than fiction? What do you think of Trump and the chaos in America at the moment? I know things have not been easy in China either, but how do you handle it? Do you think much about politics anymore? Do you feel it matters for art? How can readers and writers alike approach this—should we immerse or ignore?

CX: As the saying goes, “onlookers see more than the player.” As an eastern artist and a foreigner who has closely watched the changes in the United States, I don’t think the current situation in the country is that strange. Although American people have a long excellent tradition of democracy, and the system of the country is relatively good, at the same time, the country also has a long conservative tradition. This tradition usually functions as nationalism. For many years the political elite who led the country followed the principle of “political correctness.” They neither really knew their own people, nor understood people in other countries. The only thing they usually did was to hold high the banner of justice for their policymaking. So I think that the phenomenon of Trump is a great explosion of contradictions. It shows that the leaders of the country are more and more out of touch with the American people. They don’t know what people think about, and how they feel about their lives nowadays. And also, the theory the leaders depend on to rule the country, to deal with their foreign affairs, is a very old one that is not suitable for the situations of the world that is changing rapidly.

Review by Amal El-Mohtar (NPR Books)

Reading this book is like trying to solve a mystery in a dream. Like the Pleiades, it’s best glimpsed without looking at it directly. Patterns recur, but to track them or expect them to lead to something is a mistake. (Imagine a Mirkwood where the only caution is not to walk the path, because to do so is to walk it forever.) Porochista Khakpour, in a beautiful, thoughtful introduction to the book and Can Xue’s work, notes that the book seems pleasurably to lengthen as we read it — and this was absolutely my experience. Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping’s translation is that species of wonderful that makes you forget you’re reading a translation until they see fit to remind you, which is also deeply of a piece with Pebble Town’s absent-minded strangeness.

“Review by Beau Lowenstern”: (Asymptote)

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”



Bardo or Not Bardo and Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine, transalted by J. T. Mahany and Jeffrey Zuckerman, respectively

Straight-A Review by Michael Orthofer for Radiant Terminus (Complete Review)

Volodine’s novel isn’t so much an end-of-times dystopia of the dime-a-dozen sort found nowadays (catastrophe, apocalypse, bla bla bla), as a philosophical-literary exploration of the literal, at-infinity end of times. And it’s a great success as such. No small part of that is due to tone and voice, a register captured just right in Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation.

In its detail, Radiant Terminus is arguably dreary and bleak, and the novel is certainly long—but, in fact, it is thoroughly engaging, the stories unfolding, and dosed out, at the perfect pace, making for actual suspense, even beyond the constantly intellectually intriguing premises. And while an all-powerful character like Solovyei can be difficult to handle (or, for readers, to put up with . . .), Volodine deftly employs the puppet-master-man.

Tom Roberge on Bardo or Not Bardo for the Albertine Prize (Vote now to help Bardo advance to the finals!)

Like all great writers, the most enduring, [Volodine] approaches his subject matter and characters with a dazzling blend of empathy, pathos, and humor, all of which creates a pleasantly beguiling reading experience. [. . .] Volodine, however, echoing Samuel Beckett’s macabre-absurdist tradition, refuses to allow anyone to attain enlightenment without a certain number of missteps, misunderstandings, and outright failures.”

Meet the Publisher: Chad Post (Asymptote)

I just gave a different interview a couple months ago about this where I was arguing that we shouldn’t try to ghettoize international literature and translations as being super separate. Most translations tend to be high works of literature because of the nature of the small presses that are publishing these books. They tend to want to do important books and not thrillers, not romance novels, not things that are like, “Who cares, in five years no one’s going to remember this book anyway; it’s just like popcorn.” They’re investing these resources and, because they’re not going to make money and are doing this out of a passion for literature, they tend to do high literary works—pure literature. And the readership for pure literature, be it written in English or German or Hungarian or Japanese or whatever, is pretty small. But if we can appeal to that audience as a whole—instead of being like, “Oh, are you a reader of translations?” saying, “Are you a reader of literature?” Dividing those readers is not useful because we’re still talking about the same sorts of books. In comparison to Dan Brown. That’s a difference. But within that realm, it’s pretty much overlapping. I think that the booksellers and the people that are tastemakers, who are reading a lot of literary works from American writers or British Writers or whomever, are reading more and more books in translation that fit into that world and are making that more a part of their conversation.



The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden

Starred Review (Kirkus)

Think of it as a portrait of the artist as a young cultural omnivore grown old, under whose lens Heraclitus, Einstein, and Looney Tunes all have more or less equal footing. Fresán’s long novel begins with what may be a subtle nod to Proust, save that instead of retreating to a quiet room The Boy, our protagonist’s first emanation, is afoot and on the run, tearing around on street and sand, “running like that Roadrunner the Coyote can’t stop chasing.” [. . .] Studded with references to everyone from Dylan and the Beatles to Stanley Kubrick and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it adds up to a lively if sometimes-disjointed paean to creativity.

An exemplary postmodern novel that is both literature and entertainment.

30 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

The entry below is by Mark Haber from Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. He is also the author of Melville’s Beard, which is available in a bilingual edition from Editorial Argonáutica.



Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 88%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 20%

Have you ever read a book and felt, without anyone telling you, that you were reading a classic, something indipsensable to a language and a culture? Chronicle of the Murdered House is such an example. This book has hints of Dostoyevsky, Garcia Marquez and Antonio Lobo Antunes. Already a classic in Brazil—this book is not only beautifully written and profound, but a joy to read. The dysfunction of a prestigious family in a provincial Brazilian jungle, complete with gossip, backstabbing, cross-dressing and suicide. There’s a fully-formed universe taking place in a run-down mansion rotting away in the jungle. Despite having the weight and breadth of a classic, its 600 pages fly by. I dare anyone to read it and not appreciate its artistry and breadth. The translation, by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, is deft, peerless and worthy of the Best Translated Book Award.

24 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s always fun to share really positive reviews of our books, such as this starred review from Kirkus for Frontier by Can Xue:

Things are strange out there on the fringes, as the always adventurous Xue’s latest novel illustrates. There is magical realism aplenty in the pages of Xue’s beguiling story, but magical realism by way of Calvino, not García Márquez. The opening is a scene from a waking dream, in which a young girl named Liujin strains to make out what voices caught in rustling poplar leaves are saying. By the end of the book, by which time the reader has explored every corner of the quiet frontier town and its strange portals, the wind is still blowing, warm and portentous, threatening to become nightmare as Liujin thinks, “Something must be about to happen.” Indeed. [. . .] Odd, atmospheric, and enchanting: a story in which, disbelief duly suspended, one savors improbabilities along with haunting images and is left wanting more.

Official pub date is March 14th, but you can order it now via our website.

3 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sure, the start of a new year is a good time to look to the future, make resolutions you’ll definitely break, and all of that, but it’s also a nice moment to reflect on the past twelve months. Rather than include all the things that happened with Open Letter last year—from the success of our 2nd Annual Celebration to our $40,000 NEA grant to the ninth Best Translated Book Awards to the continued growth of the Translation Database—I’m just going to recap our 2016 publications, in no particular order.



One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Klougart’s novel was the first to be included in Writers & Books’ “Read Local” program, featuring great books from local (re: Rochester, NY) publishing houses. She was able to come here as part of a tour that included stops in Chicago, NY, Dallas, Houston, Portland, and San Francisco.

Here’s what Jeremy Garber from Powells had to say about her book:

The uncertainty, instability, doubt, regret, and longing that so often follow a failed relationship are richly and realistically conveyed. Klougart’s narrator’s emotional turmoil (punctuated, staccato) are quite nearly palpable and viscerally received. One of Us Is Sleeping, as much a series of thematically linked poetic offerings as a novel proper, is graceful and unforgettable. As Klougart’s narrator strives for clarity, understanding, and consolation, she’s left, as the rest of us undoubtedly are, to make sense of her own perceptions and boldly reassemble for herself the pieces of her shattered, shattering heart.

Josefine has another work in translation coming out later this year, and just released this amazing object in her home country of Denmark:






Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri Pierce

Sticking to Denmark, the recently release Justine is the third book in our Danish Women Writers Series. It’s been getting a lot of good attention, and was even selected by The Rumpus for their Book Club. As part of that, they ran an interview with Iben Mondrup and Kerri Pierce:

Brian Spears: Iben, I’ve never read de Sade’s Justine, but am I correct in thinking there are some parallels between that and your novel? Or is that coincidence?

Iben Mondrup: If there’s any comparison, it’s all about opposites, the polar opposites of De Sade’s Justine and mine. My Justine is sexual subject, she’s the one who desires, whereas De Sade’s Justine is an object of desire. She (my Justine), is aggressive, she’s going for what she wants as opposed to De Sade’s Justine, who is the target—and eventually the victim—of the desires of the world. She possesses no will.

Kerri Pierce: There’s a funny story, actually, about the graphic on the cover. One of my favorite parts of the book, and one of the editor, Kaija’s, favorite parts as well—which I also think speaks to Justine’s character—is when a one-night stand asks Justine if she’s a lesbian (and his tone is rather dismissive/incredulous) and she responds: “Wolf.”

Brian S: Kerri—I loved that moment in the book. That was brilliant.

Iben Mondrup: Exactly, she sees herself as a predator. A wolf, a lone she-wolf.



Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson

Chronologically, the second “modern classic” that we brought out this year, this is the one that’s getting the most buzz right now. An epic novel detailing the downfall of a Brazilian family through a series of confessions, letters, diary entries, and the like. Recently, The Onion’s A.V. Club reviewed it, stating:

The social commentary might have been lost on audiences when it debuted, but not his genre bending. Cardoso’s approach is as expansive as the lands on which his charmless bourgeoisie have lived for generations; he was a voracious reader with a preference for Gothic fiction and Russian lit, and those influences are on full display in Chronicle’s framework and themes. From its mysterious opening—which is actually the end of one character’s story—to the exploration of morality, the novel is a near-total manifestation of his talents.



Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Kazim Ali

The other “modern classic” I was alluding to, Abahn Sabana David was one of the few Open Letter titles to make it into the New York Times this year:

In this slim, raw political novel, Abahn the Jew and his double (also Abahn) spend a long night with Sabana and David, who have been sent to guard them by the Communist party boss Gringo. Fragmentary dialogue occurs about gas chambers, “Jew-dogs” and the fact that Gringo is coming by to kill Abahn(s) as a traitor. Gunshots and howling hounds are heard. By the last page, Sabana and David have allied themselves with their captive(s) and claimed the identities of Jews, the “laughter of joy . . . covering their faces.”

How to understand this text, available for the first time in English, in Kazim Ali’s translation?



A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

At the start of 2016, I predicted this would be our huge breakout hit of the year. I was obviously wrong about that—at least according to sales, sheer number of reviews, random mentions on Internet lists—but I still stand by this novel as one of the best we’ve published. And after her next two translations come out—including The Owls’ Absence, which we’re doing next fall—I think readers will start to cotton on.

Of the reviews this did receive (so far), there are a number of really thoughtful, intelligent piece, such as this one from Tony’s Reading List:

With Bae Suah living in Germany, it’s tempting to see parallels with her own life here, but A Greater Music is much more than a simple confessional piece. The shorter pieces that have appeared in English have been marked by beautiful writing, punctuated by spiky, aggressive outbursts against the strictures of modern society. Here, these themes and styles are extended over a much larger canvas; it’s a fairly slow tale, at least initially, and the story is given space to breathe before coming to life in the second half.



Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Labinger

The first novel to be translated into English from the two-time winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize, it just got a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Gesell Dome is a bizarro Robert Altman film in book form: hundreds of characters and storylines that paint a portrait of a community, but with events far stranger than anything Altman created.
If the novel has a central character, it’s the Villa, which, like other cities in Argentina, accepted Nazi war criminals as residents after World War II. Now it is home to more than 50,000 people, many of whom drive around in 4×4s and harbor prejudices against “half-breeds” and other foreigners.

These residents give Dante [local journalist] many stories to cover, including the scandal that opens the novel: Eleven kindergartners referred to as los abusaditos are abused at Nuestra Señoradel Mar, a religious school “where the snobs send their progeny.” Parents are rightfully horrified, but other residents don’t want the media to cover the story for fear of the effect the news will have on tourism.



Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Party Headquarters is the sixth book we’ve published from Bulgaria. To put this in context, all other publishers did a combined total of seven over the past nine years. Here’s what “The Literary Review”: had to say about it:

Clocking in at only 121 pages, Georgi Tenev’s taut novel Party Headquarters is at once a tragedy, a comedy, a love story and thriller, with echoes of A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, it tells the story of a man tasked with visiting his father-in-law, a former Communist party boss. The father-in-law then sends him on a mission to bring back a suitcase containing a million Euros suspected to be pilfered from the coffers of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The whole story is set against the backdrop of the meltdown of Chernobyl, and if the basic plot seems like the kind of high-octane premise that Hollywood would deliver, that makes sense: Tenev also writes for film and TV.



The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen

Sticking with our shorter books from 2016, I’ll turn to Estonia and Rein Raud, whose Brother got an “A-” from Michael Orthofer:

The Brother doesn’t exactly ride into town on a white horse, and he isn’t simply all swagger, but the resemblance to the Sergio Leone-spaghetti Westerns (especially the ones with Clint Eastwood) that author Raud admits inspired him is striking. The story is almost all atmosphere and style (showing also Raud’s other big inspiration, the writing of Mr. Gwyn (etc.)-author Alessandro Baricco), and one can almost hear the (Western movie score) background music.

The relatively short chapters — each at most a few pages — are rich but stark, the essentials — of mood and incident — sketched but not belabored. Much is masterfully understated, but the full ramifications easily expand off the page for the reader. The book is short, and quite event-filled, but there’s an agreeable languor to it all too; nothing is rushed.



Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany

Volodine has been gaining steam over the past few months, and the combination of this piece from The Nation with the forthcoming release of Radiant Terminus may finally push him over the edge. (I just received a wonderful email from Unabridged Books in Chicago about Volodine that really cheered my bitter soul.) As evident his New Inquiry piece (currently unavailable?), Volodine’s world is complex and greatly rewarding. It can also be a bit daunting to enter, but of the three titles Open Letter has done/will do, I think Bardo is the best place to start. From Ben Ehrenreich:

This year, Open Letter published Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) in a translation by J.T. Mahany, who also translated Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11. It goes without saying that it is a very odd book. [. . .] But Bardo or Not Bardo has its rewards. For all its darkness, it is extremely and blessedly silly. [. . .] Yes, it’s all very strange, but in Volodine’s world, that hardly counts as a complaint.



The Clouds by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Hilary Vaughn Dobel

This is our fifth Saer book—with more in the works—and was included on NPR’s list of Five of the Year’s Best Books in Translation:

This imaginative novel traces the journey of Dr. Real and his mentor as they work treating patients at an insane asylum in Argentina. Saer’s prose, while often likened to Proust, carries a beautiful quality that is also uniquely his. Page after page, The Clouds is a poem to be savored.
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Overall, that’s a solid list. I hope you found a few books from us that you read and enjoyed last year. And stay tuned—2017 includes some insanely good titles, starting with books from Antoine Volodine, Can Xue, Rodrigo Fresan, Iceland’s James Joyce, and more . . .

16 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including some early reviews, an excerpt, a press release, and a bit from the Ploughshares interview with the translators.

Benjamin Moser is the author of a biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World and translated her novel Near to the Wild Heart. He’s also a book critic, editor, and currently at work on a new biography of Susan Sontag. He once visited Rochester and did an event with Chad about Clarice Lispector that’s definitely worth watching. He also wrote a biographical note for the novel: “Bette Davis in Yoknapatawpha.”

Chronicle is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.



I keep a tiny watercolor on a bookshelf in my house. It is only a few inches square, slightly larger than a playing card. To all appearances, it is the work of a child: some dabs of color transversed by two black slashes. It looks like something an encouraging parent might have stuck to the refrigerator—but it may be the most poignant thing I own.

In the bottom right corner, in tiny script, someone—not the artist—has written LÚCIO 62. Those characters let it be dated to within a few weeks. It was made in the last days of 1962 by the Brazilian writer Lúcio Cardoso, fifty years old and at the height of his powers when he suffered a stroke on December 7. He would linger another six years, paralyzed, unable to speak or write, devoting his remaining time to making paintings like these. This smear is what remained of one of the most prodigiously gifted artists of twentieth-century Brazil.

It is tempting to read symbols into these blotches. Are those black lines a sign of despair? Is that yellow half-circle a setting sun?

*


Today, Lúcio Cardoso is primarily remembered for two things: being gay, and being loved by Clarice Lispector, from whose great name his is inseparable. While still a student, the eighteen-year-old Clarice took a job at a government propaganda outfit called the Agência Nacional. There, among the bored young staff, was Lúcio, a twenty-six-year-old from a small town who was already hailed as one of the most talented writers of his generation.

His father, Joaquim Lúcio Cardoso, had studied engineering but left university without a degree, due to the death of his own father. He then headed into the backlands of the interior state of Minas Gerais, where he enjoyed a period of great prosperity, at one time accumulating eight thousand head of cattle, only to be forced to hand over his fortune to a textile factory owner to whom he was indebted. After the death of his wife, he created a soap factory; but his volatile personality brought him trouble with the local merchants, who boycotted his products. His business ventures failed, Joaquim and his second wife, Dona Nhanhá, raised their six children in relative poverty.

Their town of Curvelo was typical of the backwoods of Minas Gerais, a state said to imprint a special character on its inhabitants, and one whose personality occupies a prominent place in Brazilian mythology. The mineiros, the stereotype goes, are tight-fisted, wary, and religious; there is a joke that Minas dining tables have drawers built into them, the better, at the first approach of a visitor, to hide food from potential guests. It is a place where mannered elocutions play an important role in the local language. Nobody in Minas is crazy, or louco; the preferred euphemism is “systematic.” There is a taboo against overt descriptions of medical procedures: “They opened him, and closed him back up” is the most that can be conceded of a surgery. A mineiro, above all, does not draw attention to himself. One native, returning home from São Paulo, recalls his puzzlement at being the object of amazed stares. He finally realized that it was because he was wearing a red shirt.

That was in the capital, Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil’s largest and most modern cities, in the 1960s. Four decades earlier, in the no-name village of Curvelo, it was presumably even easier to provoke a scandal. And nobody did it quite as well as Joaquin and Nhanhá Cardoso’s youngest son, Lúcio, who refused to go to school, was obsessed with movie stars, and played with dolls. This last point especially galled his father, who fought with his wife about it. “It’s your fault,” he would charge, “you brought him up clinging to your skirts, and the result is this queer. Where did you ever hear of a boy playing with dolls? Why doesn’t he like playing with the other boys? He’s a nervous child who’s never going to amount to anything.”

It was impossible to keep him in school, but he was curious about everything, and his older sister, Maria Helena, who became the best chronicler of his life, oriented his reading. This ranged from Dostoyevsky to the romantic novels serialized in the newspapers, which Lúcio and Maria Helena followed avidly. In his teens, the family moved to Rio de Janeiro, and he was sent to boarding school, where he was predictably miserable, and he eventually ended up working at an insurance company, A Equitativa, run by his uncle. “I was always a terrible employee,” he said. “All I did was write poetry.”

But he was finally free and in the capital. He was twenty-two when, in 1934, with the help of the Catholic poet and industrialist Augusto Frederico Schmidt, he published his first novel, Maleita. By the time he published his third novel, The Light in the Basement, two years later, he had attracted the attention of Brazil’s ultimate cultural arbiter, Mário de Andrade, who dispatched a typically colorful letter from São Paulo. “Artistically it is terrible,” Andrade thundered. “Socially it is detestable. But I understood its point . . . to return the spiritual dimension to the materialistic literature that is now being made in Brazil. God has returned to stir the face of the waters. Finally.”

You can read the rest of Ben’s piece—which includes a lot of information about his relationship with Lispector—by purchasing the book, either from us or from your favorite book retailer.

15 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including some early reviews, an excerpt, a press release, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.

Ploughshares was kind enough to interview both Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson about the process of translating this book. You can read the whole interview here after you check out a couple bits from it below.

Chronicle is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.



Graham Oliver: Given Cardoso’s fame in Brazil, his extensive ouevre, and his romantic relationship and friendship with Clarice Lispector (who in turn has an enduring and even growing popularity in the US), why do you think this is the first book of Cardoso’s to be translated?\

Margaret Jull Costa: Ben Moser, who wrote the introduction and has written a biography of Clarice Lispector, recommended the book to Chad Post at Open Letter, who was sufficiently intrigued to commission a translation.

Robin Patterson: I think it was both a natural choice, in that Chronicle of the Murdered House is certainly Cardoso’s best-known work, and also a bold one, in that it is not the most accessible of books. So it is both an obvious starting point, and a difficult one. Perhaps that is why it has taken to so long to bring to readers in English.



GO: Can you talk some about how you approach translating a deceased writer versus having the author available for questions or guidance? Do you rely on the author’s other works as points of reference??

MJC: I’m not sure it makes any difference, except, as you say, the author is not available to answer queries. The edition we used proved very useful, because it gave all the variants from earlier drafts, and the clue to what the author might have meant was often to be found there.

RP: Yes, looking at earlier drafts was useful, but at times not so much to clarify meaning, as to indicate where we simply needed to stop trying to clarify (even to ourselves!) and simply trust the author. Although it might be more time-consuming, in some ways not having the author around gives you a clearer concept of the text as a thing in itself—ultimately, that is where you have to find the answers.



GO: The story is told using the voices of multiple characters. In English, I could easily see differences in style between them, but I’m curious if there were any differences in the original that you found harder to bring over during translation? Or maybe you differentiated them in other ways?

MJC: The differences are clear in the style of each of the characters, the very melodramatic style of André, for example, and the rather pedantic style of the pharmacist. The Portuguese tells you what tone and register to use in English, but I must admit that I found André the most difficult, simply because his language and the way he expresses his feelings are so florid and over-the-top. I had to resist the temptation to tone him down a bit.

RP: Yes, as well as the linguistic indications in the Portuguese, I think the characters themselves helped to set their own tone. We get to know them so well over the course of the book that you begin to know how they would speak, or formulate their thoughts. The fact that nearly all the characters take their turn as narrator at some point helps with that—you really do get inside their minds, even if at times that can be quite an unsettling process.

Go read the rest of the interview at Ploughshares and come back tomorrow for a bit of Ben Moser’s introduction to the novel.

15 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, an excerpt, a press release, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.

Although the book has only been out for a couple days, it has already received a number of quality mentions, three of which are detailed below.

Chronicle is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.



First up is this review in Foreword that sort of sets the tone for what the book is about:

Lúcio Cardoso’s lurid and voluminous masterpiece Chronicle of the Murdered House follows the unraveling of the Meneses family, a once-proud Brazilian clan undone by internal mistrust. [. . .] Pages pass quickly under the influence of heady intrigue as Nina battles for her rightful place on her husband’s estate and plans punishments for those who undermined her. Even at her most cruel, she comes across as complex: a fading beauty, wronged, furious, pathetic, and ferocious, by turns. Questions are raised: can lines be crossed beyond which forgiveness is not possible? Can love survive severe betrayals? What is the true meaning of absolution? Cardoso’s novel is complex, gorgeous, and heartbreaking, well justifying its place in Brazil’s literary canon.



Over the sixteen+ years I’ve worked in publishing, until yesterday, none of our books had ever been reviewed in The Onion’s A.V. Club (not without great effort on our part, since this seems like a good fit for our type of book). And not only was Chronicle of a Murdered House reviewed by the A.V. Club, it was given a straight A rating!

Like its protagonist—or, depending on which account herein you believe, antagonist—Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle Of The Murdered House has reemerged from seclusion. First published in 1959, it was a postmodernist work that veered from the nationalist literature that had preceded it. Where his forebears sought to represent their country’s social consciousness, Cardoso narrowed his focus to the moral and financial decline of the fictional Meneses, a once-grand family relegated to the Brazilian countryside. [. . .] Cardoso was an openly gay man, and the cross-dressing Timóteo is both his stand-in and the avatar for a social order already past its expiration date in the early 20th century. As the novel makes its way to a conclusion both thundering and mewling, Timóteo retreats once more, symbolizing a discussion shelved by Cardoso’s death in 1968. But the gorgeous, deviant story he was able to tell in Chronicle’s pages became one of the hallmarks of Brazilian literature, prompting this English rendition decades later.



And last, but definitely not least, the wonderful Jane Ciabattari included Chronicle on the BBC’s Ten Books You Should Read in December list:

The family’s secrets, many revolving around the arrival of Valdo’s seductive wife Nina, are revealed slowly through a series of documents – diaries, letters, confessions, and reports from the town doctor, pharmacist and priest. It’s a sensuous, bewitching tale, suspenseful to the last page.

And I’m certain there will be many more to come . . .

14 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, some early reviews, a press release, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.

Following on the press release post, here’s an excerpt from the book itself.

Chronicle is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.



André’s Diary (conclusion)

18th . . . 19 . . . – (. . . ah, dear God, what is death exactly? When she’s far from me, beneath the earth that will enfold her mortal remains, for how long will I have to go on remaking in this world the path she taught me, her admirable lesson of love, finding in another woman the velvet of her kisses—“this was how she used to kiss”—in yet another her way of smiling, in yet another the same rebellious lock of hair—all the many women one meets throughout one’s life, and who will help me to rebuild, out of grief and longing, that unique image gone for ever? And what does “forever” mean—the harsh, pompous echo of those words ringing down the deserted corridors of the soul—the “forever” that is, in fact, meaningless, not even a visible moment in the very instant in which we think it, and yet it is all we have, because it is the one definitive word available to us in our scant earthly vocabulary . . .

What does “forever” mean but the continuous, fluid existence of all that has been set free from contingency, that is transformed, evolves and breaks ceaselessly on the shores of equally mutable feelings? There was no point in trying to hide: the “forever” was there before my eyes. A minute, a single minute—and that, too, would escape any attempt to grasp it, while I myself—also forever—will escape and slip away, and, like a pile of cold, futile flotsam, all my love and pain and even my faithfulness will drift away forever. Yes, what else is “forever” but the final image of this world, and not just this world, but any world that one binds together with the illusory architecture of dreams and permanence—all our games and pleasures, our ills and our fears, our loves and our betrayals—the impulse, in short, that shapes not our everyday self, but the possible, never-achieved self that we pursue as one might follow the trail of a never-to-be-requited love, and that becomes, in the end, only the memory of a lost love—but lost when?—in a place we do not know, but whose loss pierces us and, whether justifiably or not, hurls us, everyone of us, into that nothing or that all-consuming everything where we vanish into the general, the absolute, the perfection we so lack.)

All day, I wandered about the empty house, unable even to dredge up enough courage to enter the living room. Ah, how painfully intense the knowledge that she no longer belonged to me, that she was merely a thing looted and manhandled by strangers, without tenderness or understanding. Somewhere far from me, very far, they would uncover her now defenseless form—and with the sad diligence of the indifferent, would dress her for the last time, never even imagining that her flesh had once been alive or how often it had trembled with love—that she had once been younger, more splendid than all the youth you could possibly imagine blossoming throughout the world. No, this was not the right death for her, at least, I had never imagined it like this, in the few difficult moments when I had managed to imagine it—so brutal and final, so unjust in its violence, like the uprooting of a new plant torn from the earth.

But there was no point in remembering what she had been—or, rather, what we had been. Therein lay the explanation: two beings hurled into the maelstrom of one exceptional circumstance, and suddenly stopped, brought up short—she, her face frozen in its final, dying expression, and me, still standing, although God knows for how long, my body still shaken by the last echo of that experience. All I wanted was to wander through the rooms and corridors, as bleak now as a stage when the principal actor has left—and all the weariness of the last few days washed over me, and I was filled by a sense of emptiness, not an ordinary emptiness, but the total emptiness that suddenly and forcefully replaces everything in us that was once impulse and vibrancy. Blindly, as if in obedience to a will not my own, I opened doors, leaned out of windows, walked through rooms: the house no longer existed.

Knowing this put me beyond consolation; no affectionate, no despairing words could touch me. Like a cauldron removed from the fire, but in whose depths the remnants still boil and bubble, what gave me courage were my memories of the days I had just lived through. Meanwhile, as if prompted by a newly discovered strength, I managed, once or twice, to go over to the room where she lay and half-opened the door to watch from a distance what was happening. Everything was now so repellently banal: it could have been the same scene I had been accustomed to seeing as a child, had it not been transfigured, as if by a potent, invincible exhalation, by the supernatural breath that fills any room touched by the presence of a corpse. The dining table, which, during its long life, had witnessed so many meals, so many family meetings and councils—how often, around those same boards, had Nina herself been judged and dissected?—had been turned into a temporary bier. On each corner, placed there with inevitable haste, stood four solitary candles. Cheap, ordinary candles, doubtless rescued from the bottom of some forgotten drawer. And to think that this was the backdrop to her final farewell, the stage on which she would say her last goodbye.

*


Another, totally different excerpt is available over at Lit Hub. This one is from the “First Letter from Nina to Valdo Meneses.” Enjoy!

14 December 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, some early reviews, an excerpt, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.

We’ll start with this—the press release that was sent to reviewers and booksellers with the galleys.

The book is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.

“When a friend suggested that Chronicle of the Murdered House might be the greatest modern Brazilian novel, I was startled. There are so many more obvious candidates, after all. But as I thought about it, I realized that the statement wasn’t as strange as it sounds. The book itself is strange—part Faulknerian meditation on the perversities, including sexual, of degenerate country folk; part Dostoevskian examination of good and evil and God—but in its strangeness lies its rare power, and in the sincerity and seriousness with which the essential questions are posed lies its greatness.“—Benjamin Moser



There are a number of approaches to Lúcio Cardoso’s life and work that mark the first English-language publication of his Chronicle of the Murdered House as a major literary event.

For one, there’s Cardoso’s influence on the beloved Clarice Lispector, whose own work is currently enjoying an incredible renaissance. Clarice was enamored with Cardoso, and, as Benjamin Moser explains in his introduction, transformed one of Cardoso’s suggestions into the title of one of her most famous books—Near to the Wild Heart.

Although their writing styles are quite different, you can see the impact Cardoso had on Lispector while reading Chronicle of the Murdered House. The introspective nature of its prose marked a significant turning point in the history of Brazilian writing, carving out a path that Lispector and many others would eventually follow. In contrast to what came before, writing for these authors was less an activity concerned with social or national issues, but, again in Moser’s words, “a spiritual exercise, not an intellectual one.”

For a lot of readers and critics, this approach is particularly interesting given Cardoso’s position as a gay Brazilian author who was also a member of the Catholic Church. Although Chronicle itself doesn’t address many themes of contemporary gay literature, Cardoso’s sexual orientation does influence a lot of his writings, especially in terms of the role homosexuals could play in Brazil during that period.



The comments about Cardoso’s spirituality—as a Catholic and in terms of the goal of his writing—are particularly interesting in context of the morally suspect situations found throughout the book. In isolation, or as part of the jacket copy at least, these bits sound almost overly sensational. There’s incest. Madness. Adultery. An obese, cross-dressing character locked up in his room. There’s a cultured woman from the city whose very presence calls into question generations of familial habits.

The novel is never sordid just for the sake of being sordid though, and beyond the machinations of the plot—which twist and turn like great mid-century, or even Victorian, works—there is the form through which Cardoso tells his story. With shifts of tone and point of view, he utilizes confessions, diary entries, letters, statements, reports, to bring to life this once great family that is now represented by a crumbling estate that they can’t afford to maintain. (A very Faulknerian image.)

This a book that is a “classic” on a number of counts, including its scope, its literary style that approaches but doesn’t always embrace the high modernists, and in its import to Brazilian literature as a whole. A book of this import—that’s spectacular and complex—requires a brilliant translator to really make it work in English. Thankfully, Margaret Jull Costa—translator of such literary giants as Javier Marías, Fernando Pessoa, José Maria Eça de Queirós, José Saramago, and many more—was willing and able to undertake this task. With the help of Robin Patterson (translator of José Luandino Vieira), they have fully captured the intricacies and beauty of Cardoso’s writing, producing a rendition that’s as linguistically powerful as the original.

For such a lengthy book, Chronicle is a rather quick read. It embraces its page-turner impulses, and uses a non-linear structure to stimulate and engross the reader. From the very opening chapter, the reader can get a sense of the overall pattern of dissolution driving the lives of the characters, but keeps reading in order to witness all the juicy details and see just how crazy things can get. (Answer: As crazy as the wake scene in the final chapters.) It’s a book that fills in a gap in our collective knowledge about Brazilian literature from the twentieth century, and hopefully will spark a resurgence of interest in one of Brazil’s greatest literary stars.

4 October 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last October, we put on our first ever celebration (or gala) here in Rochester. It was centered around the release of Rochester Knockings, which was translated from the French by local poet-translator Jennifer Grotz (who also runs the translation program at the University of Rochester). The local band The Fox Sisters played, lots of great food was eaten, booze was consumed, and a great time was had by all.

Now it’s time to do it all over again . . . but even better. This year’s event will take place at The Historic German House (315 Gregory St., Rochester, NY 14620) on October 21st from 8pm till ??. (There will be a special V.I.P. reception at 7pm.) Tickets are available here at three levels: $20 to attend, $25 to attend and receive a copy of A Greater Music, and $100 for all that plus entrance to the V.I.P. reception.

This is our one and only fundraising event for the fall, the support from which goes a long way in implementing our various programs—from paying translators to help connect English readers with great works of international art, to hosting summer internships, to maintaining the world’s only translation database.

Which is why I hope all of you will consider purchasing a ticket. The $25 ticket really is the best bargain . . . You get entry to the celebration, a buffet dinner, and a copy of A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. If you’re not able to make it to Rochester for the event, we will still send you your copy of the book, and make your ticket available to a student who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. (We’ve made it easier than ever for non-local fans to participate in this celebration. Keep reading for more details.)



Similar to last year, we will have a huge buffet spread from ButaPub, one of the best new restaurants in Rochester. Thanks to popular demand, the palm readers from last year will also be back, as will our specialty cocktails.

Here’s the new stuff: First off, instead of a live band, this year we asked several of our authors to provide us with curated playlists tied to their books. We’ll be printing these in the celebration booklet (and eventually here online), and will even make these available as a Spotify playlist.

To allow non-local fans another way to participate, we will be raffling off a few dozen products and services. All are from local businesses, with most being tied to a local venue (such as the tour and tasting at Black Button Distillery or the gift certificates to Daily Refresher), but some of them (including four artworks from Dave Pollot or the Open Letter subscription or the Pompous Ass Winery gift basket) are transportable. Tickets will be available online (still hashing this out, so give it a couple days) and at the celebration itself for the following: 1 ticket for $5, 3 tickets for $10, or 8 tickets for $20. You’ll be able to apply them to whichever particular items you want to win.

In terms of the program itself, we’re going to celebrate Rochester and the fact that we’re a born and bred Rochester press by having several local visionaries give short presentations on the future of the city and role of arts and culture in that future. We have lined up Rachel Barnhart (former newsanchor, local politican), Evan Dawson (host of WXXI’s Connections), Glenn Kellogg (founder of Hart’s Grocers and Rochester Local Capital), Kyle Semmel (translator, author, director of Writers & Books), and Leah Stacy (founder of Boomtown Table). All five are important people in the Rochester community and have unique perspectives on what makes this a great city to live in—and one filled with exciting future possibilities.

We’re also planning on decorating the room with items from our archives, highlighting the first eight years of our existence. Posters of our first book covers, copies of our earliest catalogs, copies of the first time we were featured in the CITY Paper . . . Lots of interesting items to check out, all of which tie into the general theme of celebrating Rochester and what the press contributes to the local community.

If you’re a fan of Open Letter, this website, literature in translation, or all of the above, I hope you’ll consider supporting our celebration. It’s thanks to the support of people like you that we’re able to keep connecting readers with international authors and help further the discussion and appreciation of both literature in translation, and the art of translation itself. Thanks in advance, and I hope to see you there on October 21st!”:http://www.openletterbooks.org/products/celebration2



23 September 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the second entry in a series that will eventually feature all of the titles Open Letter has published to date. Catch up on past entries by clicking here. Last week’s entry was about Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno.



Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz

Original Language: Russian

Author’s Home Country: Shishkin was born in Russia, but moved to Switzerland in 1995. After taking several shits on Putin’s Russia (here and here and I think there are others), it’s probably for the best that he’s living with the bankers.

Original Date of Publication: 2005 (Russian); 2012 (English)

Second Printing: Yes—this is one of a handful of Open Letter titles to go have gone into a second printing. (I wonder if anyone can guess the others. Not all of them are our best-selling titles, but it’s a pretty solid list of books.) It’s somehow very gratifying to open up one of our books and see “Second Printing, 2013” on the copyright page. Which is why I mention it.

Awards Won: Shishkin won three international awards for Maidenhair: the Big Book Award and National Best-Seller Prize in Russia, and the German translation won the International Literature Award. In terms of prizes for the English translations, well, as you can see in the image above, Maidenhair was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award . . . AND WAS ROBBED. Actually, it was up against Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which is fine, OK. Although I still believe Shishkin deserved it, especially given that Krasznahorkai won the following year as well, and New Directions has won like 85% of the BTBA awards to date. (That is just an estimate.)

But beyond not winning the BTBA, there was a moment, in 2013, when Shishkin’s name was being bantered around as a possible Nobel Prize recipient. That would’ve changed Open Letter’s fortunes FOREVER, and possibly turned me into a happy person. Seeing that that obviously hasn’t happened—it’s all depressive episodes alternating with rage over here—it’s clear that he didn’t win. Currently, he’s not even listed over at Ladbrokes, so fuck us. And fuck happy.

Other Books in English: What that possible-Nobel-contender buzz did do is encourage Shishkin’s agent—well, one of them, since he jumped around quite a bit—to sell The Light and the Dark to Quercus.

Interlude. Whoa. WHOA. Before I go on whinging about this or that publishing thing, let’s take a second to consider this cover:



That is HORRIBLE. Like, bad romance novel that’s available for a dime at a library sale, or worse, rotting away in a dank little free library sort of bad. What is it with bigger presses taking our authors and then saddling them with really awkward, tone deaf covers? For example, the new Mathias Enard:



It’s almost like it’s supposed to be the cover of one of those 70s space porn books, but never quite gets there. Those colors and title treatment are straight out of MS Paint. If I didn’t know the history of this book, I’d assume that it’s self-published. And that the author was obliged to use his brother-in-law’s design. (“Jimmy’s co-workers always ask him to design their event posters. He has a real eye for it!”)

End Interlude.

Ugh. Agents. The part of the Shishkin debacle that was the worst was the agent—and sub agent—pressuring us to sell our UK rights to Maidenhair to Quercus because “they’re a bigger publisher.” Not once did Quercus make an offer that we could accept or reject, instead we were told repeatedly that we “must do this for the benefit of Quercus . . . and the book.” That’s exactly how shitty agents work: they show you no respect, treat you as a cog in their machine, and can’t ever figure out what’s going on when you don’t see things their way. The handful of good, honest agents—there are a couple, I swear—are so refreshing to work with. The rest are just ambulance-chasing lawyers with literary aspirations. (And this is why we don’t get any good books on submission.) (And is also why there should be a caveat at the top of this post stating that the opinions are solely those of Chad, who is mostly trying to be funny. He actually loves everyone and meditates every day. His blood pressure is within the normal range, and if only you could see the smile on his face when you mention the French Publishers Agency . . .)

Anyway, you can read The Light and the Dark, which most people consider to be not as good as Maidenhair, or you can read Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, or you can just read Maidenhair, which is one of the best books published this century.

Jacket Copy: Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a his­tory of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timeless­ness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.

An X Meets Y Comparison: Books like this can’t be put in boxes. The three storyline structure isn’t the most revolutionary thing ever, but the ways in which it twists and winds around itself, with the stability of reality (within the confines of the novel) shifting time and again elevates this into something sui generis. In a pinch, I’d say it’s like Tolstoy mixed with Joyce and a touch of Gogol. So, exactly what fans of Stranger Things are clamoring for.

Other Notes about the Author: He has beautiful, piercing eyes.



A Really Good, Lengthy Blurb: From James Meek in the London Review of Books:

The narrative habit of hopping back and forwards in time, so common in modern novels, is a superficial challenge to chronology. It’s unusual to come across a novel that is neither contingent nor consecutive. Even great monuments of modernist prose, like Ulysses, depend to some degree on the notion of consecutive chronology. To find narrative comparators to Maidenhair, the first novel by Mikhail Shishkin to be translated into English, you have to reach for outliers like Tristram Shandy or Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, where time and contingency have been disassembled. While the texture of Maidenhair is quite different from either, it resembles them in that it stretches the definition of “novel.” The enveloping structure of Shishkin’s work is not so much a story as a prose portfolio, an exhibition you walk through in a particular order because that’s the way the pages are put together, as you might walk clockwise round a gallery.

It sounds forbidding and obscure, but Maidenhair, first published in 2005, was a publishing hit in Russia, where it won two literary prizes, and in Germany. One explanation for this may be that the reading public has a greater appetite for experimental fiction than the cynics believe. Another may be the nature of Shishkin’s experiment, which relates to the enclosure, rather than to the entirety of its contents. Difficult as some passages are, there are long sections embedded within the book that are conventionally dramatic, even romantic, involving the quest for love embodied as grail, elixir, end.

Sample Paragraphs:

One evening after dinner I act all the parts in the fable I learned at school, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” not doubting that everyone is going to applaud me, thrilled over my acting talents, the moment I point a moralizing finger up and say, “Now go dance your dance!” But Aunt Olya jumps up without waiting for the end, interrupting me, and exclaims, “This is all wrong! Wrong, Bellochka!” Aunt Olya explains to me the right way to understand the fable’s meaning. “The grasshopper is cheerful and sweet and lived the way one should both being good and relying on the kindness of others! She served beauty, do you see? But the ant is a scoundrel and greedy, like all the rich, a vulgar petty bourgeois!”

Longer Sample: Apparently when we updated our website, the old samples didn’t get pulled over . . . So there’s nothing to link to except for the excerpt that appeared in N+1. Unfortunately, if you’re not a subscriber, you can’t access this. So subscribe. Actually, no, fuck that. Buy the book and get a 506-page excerpt.

Personal Pitch: When we first published this book, I had two go to reasons for why I thought it was incredible: One was that Marian Schwartz—one of the best translators ever—didn’t fully get it. Over lunch once she told me about translating a section toward the end that was completely baffling until she realized it was a series of palindromes. Palindromes! I love books that keep the reader on their toes.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. That’s not all that unusual for me, but it’s probably heightened by my upcoming birthday. (I’m going to turn 41. Never turn 41.) Mostly I’ve been thinking about the number of books I have left to read in my life. Let’s pretend that technological advances and my recent trend of healthy living (I lost 23 pounds since May and am svelte for the first time in ever) allows me to get to 80. Before my mind shits out on me. (Which is asking a lot, I know.) If I read one book a week and take a couple weeks off to be with other human beings (like my kids) every year, that gives me almost 2,000 books left to read in my lifetime. Which is a pretty solid number, but one that gets smaller every year. And my “to read” bookshelf already contains at least 400 titles.

When I think about this though, my first instinct is to try and maximize which books I read. Which, I know, is dumb. Whatever the afterlife entails, I’m pretty sure it’s not better or worse based on whether you read Bottom’s Dream or not. But if I have 40 years left to think and experience literature, I want to make it count. One approach would be to read all new books in hopes of being part of some ongoing conversation. Or simply to read books that are just supposed to be entertaining. Filled with spies, murders, and sex. Beach books.

Or, I could go in the opposite direction—the professorial direction. Read the same twenty books—all agreed upon classics—over and again, and burn up 500 of the 2,000 books I have left keeping up with monographs on these Great Books.

Described like that, the rereading option sounds smug and awful. But there is something appealing—to me, at least—about finding a book or author that you need to reread every so often. I’m pretty sure all serious readers have these books/authors who they consider to be foundational to their life, and who they revisit every so often. I want to pretend that I actually live this way. That I go back to The Crying of Lot 49 or Julio Cortázar or Absalom, Absalom! or Ulysses every so often, but that’s a utter lie. I wish I did. Instead, I feel like I have to keep up with things—the books we’re publishing, the ones we’re thinking about publishing, the catalogs of my favorite presses, etc. Even now, thinking about rereading 62: A Model Kit (which I’ve been meaning to do for years so that I can then get some sort of related tattoo) feels like it would take away from reading something else that I should be reading. What’s sadder is that this compulsion to read certain new books is mostly driven by the hope of being able to interact with the cool literary kids on the Twitter. Fuck me, fuck my brain.

For the class that I’m teaching this spring—which I’ll talk about in more detail in a separate post—I’ve decided to teach mostly books that I don’t understand. Books that more or less require a second reading. Books like Maidenhair. Books that you can understand in the moment, but that necessitate a second reading—one in which you start out much more informed about the overall scope or structure. At this moment in my life, there’s something really compelling about reading books that beg me to reread them. Books that aren’t direct and obvious and meant to be immediately grasped. That excites me. Books that don’t conform to expectations or pre-determined ideas. Books like Maidenhair.

(That’s not to dismiss books—or movies, or TV shows, or comics—that are solely entertaining. Those things are totally cool as well, and definitely have a place in my life.)

Instead of constantly rushing forward, trying to get the next thing, enjoy the newest book, share the coolest new tweet before everyone else, I’d like to let some ideas develop in my mind over multiple readings or viewings. One reason translators can be so fun to talk with is because they’re one of a handful of people who read a particular book more than once. There aren’t that many serious readers left in the world with enough time to read, reread, digest, and think about particular books. At the same time, there aren’t that many books that really need to be reread and digested in that way . . .

Maidenhair IS one of those books though. Reading this once is basically just preparation. It demands something more. And even though it’s not the current trend to publish or support books that aren’t obvious and immediate, this is exactly why I got into publishing. To bring out books that you have to struggle with. In 100 years when I’m dead and forgotten, hopefully some college kid will come across Maidenhair and will have their mind changed through the struggle to really “get” it.

So buy it for that reason. And read it twice.

The second reason I used to cite for why this book is so good is the thread of the journals of the young opera singer and how the whole book is questioning how to preserve her innocence and unmitigated joy about being alive while being surrounded by the horror that is the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That’s a great goal for living, and something that hits deep inside every time I look at my kids. How can you keep that happiness alive?

Buy it: Obviously, you can get this from your local bookshop or online retailer, but you can also buy it directly from us by clicking here. Or you can always subscribe to Open Letter—the best way to receive some of the most varied and interesting voices of international literature, delivered right to your door each and every month.

20 September 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Officially pubbing last Tuesday, The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen, is a spaghetti western and “philosophical gem” (West Camel). It’s also Raud’s first novel to appear in English, following an appearance in the Best European Fiction 2015 anthology.

The book has received a couple of reviews already, including the one by West Camel referenced above (“within its short length [The Brother] manages to explore in great depth big ideas about human agency and determinism”), along with one in Kirkus (“a slim but satisfying novel with archetypal resonances”), and at The Bookbinder’s Daughter (“I was so thoroughly impressed with his language, imagery and characters”).

To celebrate the release of this book, you can buy it now for $10 from our website by using the code EASTWOOD at check out. And to give you a few more reasons to want to grab a copy, below please find an interview with Rein Raud.



The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen

The Brother, Rein Raud’s first full-length work to appear in English, is a spaghetti western that has been referred to as “a lone Eastwood in the midst of a flock of van Dammes” (Tarmo Jüristo). It reads a bit like a fairy tale or mythical play, with a mysterious stranger (the “Brother” of the title) arriving in an unnamed town to right some wrongs. Below you’ll find an interview Rebekka Lotman conducted with Raud when The Brother was first published in Estonia.

Rebekka Lotman: Is The Brother the kind of book that you yourself would readily pick up?

Rein Raud: Yes—I at least always try to only write books that I believe the world is lacking. And you’re always most content with the latest thing you’ve written, up until there’s enough distance from it. I have to admit that the more time that passes, the more I also read books that counterbalance the visceral literary experiences of what I normally read. I don’t want to find out how awful things actually are when I’m reading, because I already know.

When I’m reading a very depressing text, I can understand that it’s outstanding literature, but when I think about what to start writing next, then I always tend to postpone pieces like that until better days, so to say, because it’s already not easy being human. Good literature doesn’t necessarily have to leave a bad aftertaste, even when it touches and moves you. In that sense, I’ve also always wanted to write in a way that might offer others support.

RL: How did The Brother come to be?

RR: Unexpectedly. The first chapter popped into my head during a seminar on freedom, in which we were discussing the concepts of liberty, and I simply came up with it out of the blue to use as an example. Afterward, I went home and wrote it down, and the rest of the story suddenly began to branch off from there. Actually, I’ve wanted to write a spaghetti western for a long time. Leafing through my old manuscripts recently, I found that my first attempt at the genre appeared in my first poetry collection, Barefoot, from 1980—a prose-poetry cycle titled “The Diner.”

RL: What fascinates you about Baricco?

RR: Baricco has the most precise parlance out of all the living writers I know—the ability to convey highly nuanced emotion in a light, descriptive language that is almost musical. Unfortunately, almost all of it has been lost in the Estonian-language translations I’ve come across. But I hope that kind of language transcends the connection to a single author and permeates—something like how Petrarch revised the sonnet in his time, or Chekhov’s and Ibsen’s theatrical language.

A school of writing like that has actually already developed in Italian literature. For instance, Paolo Giordano, author of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which has won many literary awards, is a student of Baricco, and there are also others among rising new writers.

RL: Where did you get the idea to combine him with Bulat Okudzhava and Clint Eastwood?

RR: Well, I wouldn’t like to say I’ve focused on the conscious combination of influences in my text—more like I’ve simply written, and then honestly acknowledged what parts of my intellectual biography shine through in the result. But Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood are my absolute favorites in that genre, as is Eastwood’s own self-directed High Plains Drifter, which they certainly strongly influenced.

But what’s more compelling for me than the setting and plot developments is their strange method of depiction, which prefers a very large and very general scale over an ordinary medium one. Important things can happen in a way that we either don’t see them at all because we’re observing the scene too closely and they are out of frame, or else we see them from too far away and might not even notice them. I like that—events and reality transpire in their own rhythm, but we never reach them; we only come closer.

As for Okudzhava, some of his songs convey the hopes of the downtrodden very well. But musically, it’s not crucial for the song in the least. There’s much more of that in Beth Gibbon’s performance of Rodrigo Leão’s “Lonely Carrousel” or in T Bone Burnett. Even so, I hope that searching for the influences listed in the acknowledgements at the back of the book doesn’t disturb the story itself for anyone.

RL: The Brother also speaks of justice. Is the world just?

RR: The world is the way it is. I myself would say it speaks rather of the winning/losing axis. One secondary character in the novel says that everyone who wants to win by any means will always lose. Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple in real life. But I suppose the establishment of the problem is defined a little by the genre, too: a nameless man wearing a big hat and a flapping coat arrives in a tiny town under the control of a corrupt group of men. What happens next is simply inevitable.

RL: Love has an important role in the book. One definition of love you propose is quite beautiful: “love springs from the ability to prefer imperfection over perfection.” Did you intentionally try to highlight love, justice, and other human values?

RR: I’ve always seen it as a problem when the negative characters in books and films are more interesting than the positive ones. Everyone “good” is cookie-cutter or anemic, for the most part, or else they’re not actually as good as they appear. I’d like this to be different in my books, because in my opinion, real-life evil and spite are actually more boring than nobleness and idealism most of the time. I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone calls this sentimentality.

RL: There are also philosophical musings, such as: “For what good is a name if it isn’t tied up in a network, connected to faces over the span of time, discovered in the trails that could demarcate the whole world?” Do you feel that you are in a teacher’s role as a writer?

RR: Not in this book, although my last, longer work Hector and Bernard was indeed a conscious attempt to bring Socratic philosophy into the contemporary world (thereby being more instructive). There are relatively few such places in this book, although I suppose I didn’t manage to separate entirely from the kind of mindset that tends to rationally present inner truths.

Remember, you can buy it for $10 by visiting our website and using EASTWOOD at checkout.

24 August 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our assumption should be disproved.

If it turns out we know just a fragment of the world.

Constant motion, collapsing buildings and meticulous work in stone. The unfamiliar as a wall we must forever scrabble to remove in order to find our humanity there and perhaps even love someone.


The first of Josefine Klougart’s award-winning novels to be translated into english, One of Us Is Sleeping (Én af os sover) is a dolorous, yet beautifully composed work of failed love, loss, and lament. The star of Klougart’s book is her gorgeous, evocative imagery and emotional acuity. With grief aplenty—mourning the fated end of a romantic relationship, as well as her ill mother—the Danish author’s sorrowful narrator is ever-conflicted, trying as she does to move beyond what’s been, despite being eternally bound to it.


The past does not come creeping in the form of images, it’s there all the time, tugging at your sleeve, trailing along behind you, occasionally wanting to be lifted up and carried.


The uncertainty, instability, doubt, regret, and longing that so often follow a failed relationship are richly and realistically conveyed. Klougart’s narrator’s emotional turmoil (punctuated, staccato) are quite nearly palpable and viscerally received. One of Us Is Sleeping, as much a series of thematically linked poetic offerings as a novel proper, is graceful and unforgettable. As Klougart’s narrator strives for clarity, understanding, and consolation, she’s left, as the rest of us undoubtedly are, to make sense of her own perceptions and boldly reassemble for herself the pieces of her shattered, shattering heart.

How naïve I’ve been, I think to myself. Or rather: how lonely. How closely I scrutinized, how clearly I saw it all in my mind—all that nearly was. The person who could love, almost; this almost-love, forever postponed, something else in its place. What, exactly. Reality. Whatever that is. Yours, I suppose.


13 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Tiffany Nichols, who will start her Ph.D. studies this upcoming fall and is a contributor at to Three Percent. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Open Letter)

My first rather obvious reason as to why The Things We Don’t Do should win the Best Translated Book Award relies on the prestige already gained by Andrés Neuman. Neuman was introduced to the English-speaking audience with Traveler of the Century, a work which I personally believe is the War and Peace of the twenty-first Century. As Jeremy Garber points out in his Three Percent review of the work, Neuman “has been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, having attracted a number of prestigious awards.” Further, Neuman was celebrated by Roberto Bolaño (in verified print— Between Parentheses). In discussing Neuman’s first novel, Bolaño states:

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


Personally, I believe we can drop the mic here as to why Neuman should win the BTBA. Namely, (1) Neuman is still writing, and (2) Neuman has assumed a position of literary prestige in the Spanish-speaking world (and the English-speaking world)—All of Bolaño’s criteria having been met. . .

Most works of literature stay with us for a short period of time upon completion. However, there are a select few that sneak into our thoughts weeks and months (even years) after completion. These works are challenging and thought-provoking not only during the act of reading, but also appear in one’s thoughts without provocation when the mind is busy handling our daily lives because the subconscious needs time to make its own assessment of the work within the greater context of time and the reader’s own identity. The Things We Don’t Do (along with his other works) is one of such work. Neuman’s aforementioned prestige and now his ability to write literature with staying power—the case is building for a winner.

Focusing on the work itself, The Things We Don’t Do is divided into five parts, which appear to be based on thematic similarities between the short stories in their respective sections ending with a section containing clever aphorisms on writing within the short story form. The strength of the collection lies in Neuman’s ability to craft short stories covering topics, on which people remain silent or often forget completely while carrying out their day-to-day activites. These topics range from terminal illness to suicide to the contents of hotel guest books to experiences of sex intertwined with birth and the clues one can observe from a clothes line.

True to this established style, Neuman places observations that are so globally ubiquitous that anyone could engage with his work as if there was a direct channel between the reader and the work. These observations are so simple and stated with such finesse that any reader will be forced to provide his/her undivided attention to the work. Examples (absent context) include:

. . . [I]n today’s session he declared that people born in the ‘70s are orphans through excess. That is to say, a generation that feels unprotected due to its parents’ overprotectiveness.

Ariel was, so to speak, a classically envious person. And, like all people of his kind, his fury turned against his own interests and slowly ate away what little happiness he had.

. . . [M]y male neighbor on the third floor, who takes the trouble to sort out his washing by size, type, and color. Never a shirt next to a hand towel. He lives alone. I am not surprised. How can anyone possibly sleep with someone unable to trust in the hospitality of chance? No doubt about it, my obsessive neighbor is a master of camouflage.


Scattered through the entire collection, the reader will also stumble across clever mind games, which add to the intrigue of the work as a whole and demanding the reader’s attention (and later that of the reader’s subconscious) despite the deceivingly simple and unencumbered prose. Further, Neuman’s playfulness when it comes to these mind games, result in a work that becomes quite endearing to the reader without a scintilla of kitschiness. In addition, each story starts from a point of zero and flourishes into concepts that cannot be predicted or sensed until they occur, amplifying the suspense which is often laking from a short story collection. As Neuman himself states:

The extreme freedom of a book of short stories derives from the possibility of starting from zero each time. To demand unity from it is like padlocking the laboratory.


Turning to the end of the work, the last section of Things We Don’t Do is comprised of series of statements—not meant to be “dogmatic poetics” but are “happy to contradict each other”—serving as an enjoyable reference pertaining to the art of writing short stories. The section’s placement serves as a dare to the reader to apply the preceding stories to the statements to test whether the collection passes muster which can only come from an author who is aware of not only his craft, abilities, comfort with language, and peers, but also one who understands what came before and what will come after. To contain such a dare in one’s work is yet another reason why The Things We Don’t Do should win.

In closing, just as Patti Smith carried Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal throughout the world in a small metal suitcase, I have done the same with The Things We Don’t Do (albeit, a generic polyester Samsonite suitcase). Like Astragal for Patti Smith, The Things We Don’t Do has become a “trove of bittersweet memories” probably because The Things We Don’t Do is “a book [that] tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I were taking them back.” I rest my case as to why this book should win.

(It should also be noted that The COOP at Harvard University believes that The Things We Don’t Do is a perfect alternative to doing your homework. So you do not have to take my word for it.)

31 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Mark Haber, BTBA judge and bookseller at Brazos Bookstore. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.



War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Spain, Open Letter)

My first (and possibly strongest) argument why War, So Much War should win the Best Translated Book Award is that Mercè Rodoreda is symbolic of the importance of translated literature. The Catalan language—a language banished under the Franco regime and during the bulk of Rodoreda’s writing career—is today spoken by a mere nine million people. That may seem like a lot but, comparatively, it’s only the size of a large city, say Mexico City or New York. It is a language that has survived against the odds. Rodoreda was an author who wrote in a prohibited language and almost exclusively in exile. Imagine leaving your home and writing in a language Franco had called the language of dogs. And yet the book. The book. How often do you read a book and feel that it’s essential? That it always existed and you just had to find it?

War, So Much War seduces with its apparent simplicity until the reader realizes something rather brilliant and rare is taking place. It has one foot in the world of the living and another in a fever dream. The premise is simple: a young boy runs away from home during the Spanish Civil War (although the name of the war is never mentioned). The chapters are short and the novel is episodic. The world of war, its strange and surreal cruelty, is seen through the eyes of the boy as he tramps through the countryside. Strangers come in and out of focus, some longer than others. I read War, So Much War just after finishing Don Quixote and the similarities are hard to ignore: it’s a pastoral and episodic novel. Each tiny chapter moves the story forward by small increments. The tones are very different of course but the similarities are pronounced.

Translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent the language of the novel is never less than stunning. A passage where the young protagonist listens to an old man imprisoned in an empty castle is especially memorable. The old man rambles as the boy listens:

Observe and admire the perfect order of stars, the passing of time with its retinue of seasons: the gates of summer, the gates of winter. Observe the waves, attend to the grandeur of the winds that the angels blow from the four corners of the pulsating heavens. The lightning that streaks everything with fire, the crawling thunder . . . I adored rosy cheeks, turgid buttocks, honey-sweet breasts, dawn-colored thighs, snow-white, nacreous feet . . . Books that impart wisdom, blazing sunsets from my windows, the pearly light of the night star. My life had been a perfect jewel, a diamond. What are my broken bones but a way of binding me to the realm of memories, to everything I once had and still retain because it dwells in the darkest recesses of my heart?


For a book with War in the title (twice!) there is very little war. War is present, but often in the distance or on the periphery. Instinctively the reader knows bad and violent things are taking place nearby, perhaps over the next hill or in the neighboring valley, but the violence is mostly off-screen. The effects of war, however, the way war changes how people live in, feel and perceive the world, especially children, is omnipotent. This is another reason why War, So Much War is so relevant and universal. War and its ravaging effects are, unfortunately, timeless. Though written toward the end of her life, in 1980, the novel, like all great novels, feels immune to trends.

I could say a lot more about this novel. How customers who have purchased War, So Much War have returned to Brazos Bookstore to not only thank us for the recommendation but to ask: ‘what other books do you have by her?’ How I think a posthumous Nobel Prize she should be awarded to Rodoreda. How the Book Group is reading The Time of the Doves in May and I couldn’t be more excited. Her titles are not only selling well but being talked about in, of all places, Houston, Texas. And in the year 2016. Yes, the mere fact that this brilliant writer and her amazing book is being discussed in 2016 for its literary merit, its translation and its timelessness is a cause for celebration. Mercè Rodoreda is the writer I never knew I needed until I’d read her.

29 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the first entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, which will highlight each of the 35 “longlisted”: titles for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Tom Roberge of Albertine Books wrote this piece.



The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Bulgaria, Open Letter)

The nature of these “Why This Book Should Win” pieces is that they, by virtue of the various writers’ particular fondness for whatever book they’re arguing on behalf of, are, in their conception and execution, capable of taking almost any form. They are not reviews; that’s been done. They aren’t critical examinations; that’s for another time and place. And they aren’t the sort of recommendations people like me (booksellers, publicists) make on a daily basis because those tend towards the succinct, which is not a problem, per se, but which means that a lot of the gritty beauty of a book is summarized in ways that, in the service of making one’s case before the target loses interest in a tangle of plot.

Which is all a way of saying that I’m going to try to make my case for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow, translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel and published by this site’s beneficent overlord (I kid, I kid) Open Letter, in my own damn way. By which I mean I’m going to try to sway you by using a few related passages of the text itself to demonstrate just how insanely beautiful and captivating this book is.

First, a bit of summarization, since it is, I’d argue inseparable from the overall scope and style of the book, which functions on several levels at all times, and which jumps around in time and space in a way that intentionally disorients and then immediately reorients the reader (something that I’d further argue is itself a grand metaphor and commentary on the plot and subject matter, but I don’t have time or, quite frankly, the intellectual dexterity to tackle that notion). The story sprawls across a century of wars and miseries and inter-war miseries that dominated Eastern Europe until recently and, of course, that have left their indelible marks in myriad ways. The narrator, we might as well explain at the outset, possessed, as a child, a certain ability to leap into the buried memories of other people (and creatures, as you’ll see below . . . ). Though given a scientific explanation and name (empathetic-somatic syndrome), it seems to be an invention of the writer, albeit one that yields an abundance of material as the narrator pieces together his family’s history, which passes through two real wars, the cold war, and finally the end of Soviet rule, a period itself full constantly shifting attitudes and socio/economic realities. But this is not in any way a novel that wallows in historical gravitas. The historical aspects of the book are present in the way historical incidents are present in DeLillo’s best novels: as un-ignorable facts of life, monoliths casting massive shadows.

Now, in addition to these time-out-of-joint retellings of his family’s history (think Slaughterhouse Five), the narrator dives into the enduring depths of Greek mythology in order to draw lessons, to find solace amid the chaos, and to lend the history itself a new context. More specifically, the myth of the Minotaur is examined and revisited throughout, the story expanding and developing greater nuance with each visit. So what does this mean in practice? Consider this passage, which I’ve chosen from an early mention of the myth that I believe helps establish the book’s unique mise en scène:

I never forgave Ariadne for betraying her brother. How could you give a ball of string to the one who would kill your unfortunate, abandoned brother, driven beastly by the darkness? Some heart- throb from Athens shows up, turns her head—how hard could that be, some provincial, big-city girl, that’s exactly what she is, a hay- seed and a city girl at the same time, she’s never left the rooms of her father’s palace, which is simply a more luxurious labyrinth.

Dana returns to the mill all alone in the darkness and rescues her brother, while Ariadne makes sure that her own brother’s murderer doesn’t lose his way. I hate you, Ariadne.


In the children’s edition of Ancient Greek Myths, I drew two bull’s horns on Ariadne’s head in pen.

To clarify, Ariadne is the Minotaur’s sister, and Dana is the narrator’s grandfather’s sister, who had to retrieve her younger brother after he’d been simply forgotten when the family had visited the mill to sell a load of flour. The mother, for what it’s worth, very nearly left him there; such was the desperation of the time.

Then, not a handful of pages later, we get this, without introduction:

The slugs slowly drag themselves across the newspaper, without letting go of it. Several are timidly clinging together, body to body. My grandfather grabs one with two fingers, closes his eyes, opens his mouth and slowly places the slug inside, close to his throat. He swallows. My stomach turns. I’m afraid for Grandpa. And I want to be able to do as he does. My grandfather has an ulcer. The slugs are his living medicine. They go in, make their way through the esophagus and stop in the soft cave of the stomach, leaving their slimy trail there, which forms something like a protective film on top, a thin medicinal layer that seals off the wound…

This is then followed, after a section break, with a version of the action as told from the slug’s point of view, which, of course, the narrator can access:

A huge hand lifts me up and sets me at the opening of a red, warm and moist cave. It is not unpleasant, even if a bit frightening. The red thing I have been placed on constantly twitches, slightly bucking and rising, which forces me to crawl farther in toward the only available corridor. At the entrance there is a soft barrier, it isn’t difficult to overcome. It’s as if it opens on its own, in any case it reacts when I touch it. Now there’s the tunnel, dark and soft, which I sink into, horns forward, like a slow bull. I leave a trail behind me to mark the way back. I feel safer with it…

The juxtaposition of the slug’s trail in the grandfather’s stomach and the string left for Theseus by Ariadne is, in my opinion, breathtakingly brilliant and beautiful and something that I cannot possibly expound upon any further; it speaks for itself. And this is but one example of the sort of genius on display in The Physics of Sorrow, which is why I think this book should win.

6 November 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, and published by Open Letter Books.

Here’s a part of of Tiffany’s review:

Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature.” You will find this on the covers of Andres Neuman’s works. In addition, Music & Literature claims “Neuman has transcended the boundaries of geography, time, and language to become one of the most significant writers of the early twenty-first century.” Based on Neuman’s introduction to the English-speaking audience with his novel Traveler of a Century_—which I still personally believe is our modern-day _War and Peace or Anna Karenina_—I find absolute truth in the quotes from both Roberto Bolaño and _M&L.

The Things We Don’t Do_—Neuman’s latest work in English translation—does not disappoint. Admittedly, I was very reluctant to shift to a male author in the midst of my Elena Ferrante and Clarice Lispector binge. However, I was quickly reminded of why one should read Neuman. Neuman’s work consists of the combination of the reasons you should read Elena Ferrante and Clarice Lispector with the caveat being that Neuman’s talent is in his ability to capture the voices of all genders, ages, and backgrounds in his works while bringing sparse language to a new level. As _M&L said, Neuman transcends time, but also literary history and talent.

For the rest of the review, go here.

6 November 15 | Kaija Straumanis |

Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature.” You will find this on the covers of Andres Neuman’s works. In addition, Music & Literature claims “Neuman has transcended the boundaries of geography, time, and language to become one of the most significant writers of the early twenty-first century.” Based on Neuman’s introduction to the English-speaking audience with his novel Traveler of a Century —which I still personally believe is our modern-day War and Peace or Anna Karenina —I find absolute truth in the quotes from both Roberto Bolaño and M&L.

The Things We Don’t Do —Neuman’s latest work in English translation—does not disappoint. Admittedly, I was very reluctant to shift to a male author in the midst of my Elena Ferrante and Clarice Lispector binge. However, I was quickly reminded of why one should read Neuman. Neuman’s work consists of the combination of the reasons you should read Elena Ferrante and Clarice Lispector with the caveat being that Neuman’s talent is in his ability to capture the voices of all genders, ages, and backgrounds in his works while bringing sparse language to a new level. As M&L said, Neuman transcends time, but also literary history and talent.

The Things We Don’t Do is divided into four parts, which appear to be based on thematic similarities between the short stories in their respective sections, and ending with a section containing clever aphorisms on writing within the short story form. The strength of the collection lies in Neuman’s ability to craft short stories covering topics, on which people remain silent or which they often forget completely. These topics range from terminal illness to suicide to the contents of hotel guest-books, to experiences of sex intertwined with birth and the information one can learn from a clothesline. The collection is also quite compelling due to Neuman’s playfulness when it comes to mind games, which are scattered throughout the entire collection. Each story starts from zero, embellishing the suspense of the collection as a whole and causing the reader to finish reading the work in one sitting. As Neuman himself states:

The extreme freedom of a book of short stories derives from the possibility of starting from zero each time. To demand unity from it is like padlocking the laboratory.

Perhaps the most notable short story was “The Innocence Test” because of its relevance to the discourse focused on police power-limitations, which now is front and center in the news cycle. The story starts with a protagonist proclaiming:

Yes, I like it that the police question me. We all need someone to confirm to us that we truly are good citizens. That we are innocent. That we have nothing to hide.

Right away, the reader is left to wonder what sane person would ever make such a statement. As one can guess, the tale quickly shifts into the murkiness of police power in situations where there is no threat and instead only mere suspicion and unchecked power on the part of the government. The story is timeless, yet relevant at the same time. As the future approaches, each story in this collection will have only its relevance in relation to discourses of the time as it moves forward into the future.

The last section of The Things We Don’t Do is comprised of a series of statements—not meant to be “dogmatic poetics” but are “happy to contradict each other”—serving as an enjoyable reference on the art of writing short stories. The section’s placement serves as a dare to the reader to apply the preceding stories to the statements as a test of whether the collection passes a muster that can only come from an author who is aware of his language, his peers, and what came before and what will come after.

22 September 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past few weeks, our books have received a bunch of great reviews. Each time this happens, I plan on posting about it on the blog, then I start answering emails, or teaching a class, or doing some mundane publishing related task (sales reports! metadata!) and don’t get around to it. So, here’s a huge round-up with some quotes and links.

Once you see how amazing all of our books are, you’re going to want to buy them. You can do that at your local bookstore or favorite retailer, OR you can buy them directly from our website.

What I’d recommend doing is buying a subscription. That way you’ll never miss a book, and each one will be delivered directly to your door.

Here are some review highlights for our titles from recent times:

Lies, First Person by Gail Hareven reviewed at the Colorado Review by Eric Maroney:

Lies, First Person is an extremely ambitious novel, which in the end does not lend itself to firm or lasting conclusions. Hareven has produced a work of dramatic and impressive contradictions. Between the two poles of questionable truth and falsehood, she examines such weighty issues as sin, guilt, forgiveness, Judaism, Christianity, motherhood, womanhood, violence, and especially the limitations and possibilities of art.

Dalya Bilu, a veteran translator of most of Israeli’s premier authors, renders Hareven’s Hebrew prose into clear and lucid English, helping the reader through the thicket of this dense, intriguing novel and aiding Hareven’s mission to convey both a grand scope of life and history while simultaneously presenting a small world of disquieting, individual claustrophobia. In the end, Hareven’s novel rises above the difficulties and problems of its characters and Elinor’s unreliable narration to capture the very strange and forgivable ways people confront and deny difficult experiences and memories.

Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard reviewed at the New Statesman by Leo Robson:

Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn. [. . .]

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid.

Interview with Georgi Gospodinov about The Physics of Sorrow at Fiction Writers Review conducted by Steve Wingate:

GG: If we enter into that spatial matrix, I started from the “bottom up,” through the voice and through various scenes. The Boy and the Minotaur were there from the very beginning. Over the course of writing, somewhere near the middle, the idea of accumulation, lists, and collections grew stronger and became structurally defining. The quasi-classical narrative from the beginning had to disintegrate after the main character lost his ultra-empathy and began collecting and buying stories in some sort of pre-apocalyptic panic. Thus, from a certain moment onward the labyrinth gets the upper hand, the reader is forced into the labyrinth in place of the Minotaur himself. And as we know from Borges, the labyrinth can be located not only in space, but also in time.

[Quick note: This interview is truly amazing. And the answers are long, too long to run in full here. So go check it out, especially if you’ve read this novel.]

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The Physics of Sorrow was also featured in Foreword’s The Marvel and Mastery of Translation feature:

Having grown up in communist and post-communist Bulgaria (“life under communism was a long chain of secrets,” Gospodinov writes), under the threat of an atomic mushroom cloud, Gospodinov is all too attuned to his own mortality. A time-traveling empath, he uses story to call us to look beyond ourselves to what can root us and give our lives meaning in a world that can seem crushingly cold and cruel.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt reviewed at Seeing the World Through Books by Mary Whipple:

As compelling as the plot and Thomas’s psychology may be, the novel’s philosophical underpinnings and the universal themes which emerge from the conflicts are even more provocative. Underlying the entire novel are questions of who we are as human beings, how much our futures as individuals evolve from our own actions and choices, and how much damage can be inflicted upon us by others around us. Other events draw us in by mere chance, as we see in the random events which involve Thomas as he deals (or does not deal) with his own life and the people surrounding him. [. . .]

Filled with smart, crisp language; carefully described and introduced imagery; and occasionally lyrical passages, the novel owes much of its appeal in English to translator K. E. Semmel, who must have been challenged by the metaphysical aspects which parallel the narrative lines. With contrasting themes of life and death, love and hate, accident and design, strength and weakness, selfishness and altruism, and reality and invention, the novel offers much to ponder on many levels. Ultimately, one is even forced to consider the question of whether the existence of an alterego is real or a protective fiction created by a damaged ego.

Interview with Valerie Miles about A Thousand Forests in One Acorn at Shelf Awareness conducted by George Carroll:

GC: Can you give us a shortlist of recently released or forthcoming must-read authors who you are excited to see translated into English for the first time?

VM: ¡¡¡ALVARO ENRIGUE!!! His novel Sudden Death is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve experienced in a long time and it’s out from Riverhead in February 2016. Don’t miss it. I also absolutely adore the great Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo’s haunting short story collection from New York Review Books, Thus Were Their Faces, and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s story of alcohol-infused neurosis, The Dream of My Return. He’s a splendid writer, always unpredictable and his prose is absolutely incantatory. Also there’s Andrés Neuman, who has a glorious short story collection coming out from Open Letter in September, The Things We Don’t Do.

11 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Izidora Angel on The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel and out last month from Open Letter Books.

This book—and call it a shameless plug all you want—is by far one of the best books I’ve read in the last year, and has been on my personal Best Books of 2015 list since I first read it over a year ago. I can’t say enough or put the proper words to what the reading experience was like, but this is a phenomenal work, and if you’re not able to fit the entire book into your schedules, you should at least read one of the many excerpts posted across several online journals, including Little Star Weekly, which ran a three-part excerpt of Physics over the course of March and April. Really, really, truly, I can not get enough of this book.

Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer and translator living in Chicago. She is at work on translating the multi-award winning “The Same Night Await Us All: Diary of a Novel,” by Hristo Karastoyanov, from Bulgarian into English. She was just recently in Rochester as part of a three-week residency for Bulgarian translators, sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Here’s a snippet of her review:

Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was an immediate best-seller when it was published in his native Bulgaria in 2011, which is no small feat considering best-seller lists in the country are almost always dominated not by indigenous literature, but by a slightly schizophrenic gathering of translated literature of varying merit. To give an example, fellow best-selling books in fiction that year included The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak (2010), and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by the same author, as well as, perhaps, the inevitable: Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). This points to the Bulgarian reader’s eclectic taste: the Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Remarque of her childhood paving the way for an enduring historical and intellectual thirst followed by mired fascination with an exotic, far-away America via its spiritual junk food.

As a writer, Gospodinov travels freely—physically and metaphysically—attempting to grasp the national fascination with chujbina or “foreign country,” along with the necessity of revisiting another quite foreign thing: your own childhood. The metaphor he utilizes in The Physics of Sorrow for doing the latter is a child Minotaur, necessary perhaps only for the natural resistance of Bulgarians for self-introspection.

In his native country, Gospodinov (whose last name essentially means “Sir,” giving him an innately superior status) is a literary star, celebrated for many reasons, one of which is his translation into over twenty languages. This kind of success doesn’t come without detractors. He has received death threats for essays he’s written and many decry what they perceive to be the contrived mass-hysteria that follows the release of his books in Bulgaria. But Gospodinov’s writing speaks for itself; it is effortlessly relatable and that, in turn, translates.

For the rest of the review, go here.

11 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I ask.

Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was an immediate best-seller when it was published in his native Bulgaria in 2011, which is no small feat considering best-seller lists in the country are almost always dominated not by indigenous literature, but by a slightly schizophrenic gathering of translated literature of varying merit. To give an example, fellow best-selling books in fiction that year included The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Şafak (2010), and The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) by the same author, as well as, perhaps, the inevitable: Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). This points to the Bulgarian reader’s eclectic taste: the Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Remarque of her childhood paving the way for an enduring historical and intellectual thirst followed by mired fascination with an exotic, far-away America via its spiritual junk food.

As a writer, Gospodinov travels freely—physically and metaphysically—attempting to grasp the national fascination with chujbina or “foreign country,” along with the necessity of revisiting another quite foreign thing: your own childhood. The metaphor he utilizes in The Physics of Sorrow for doing the latter is a child Minotaur, necessary perhaps only for the natural resistance of Bulgarians for self-introspection.

In his native country, Gospodinov (whose last name essentially means “Sir,” giving him an innately superior status) is a literary star, celebrated for many reasons, one of which is his translation into over twenty languages. This kind of success doesn’t come without detractors. He has received death threats for essays he’s written and many decry what they perceive to be the contrived mass-hysteria that follows the release of his books in Bulgaria. But Gospodinov’s writing speaks for itself; it is effortlessly relatable and that, in turn, translates.

If the author’s Natural Novel (2005) was a novel of beginnings, then The Physics of Sorrow can be read as a query into the riddle of beginnings and endings; a narratively deconstructed account of life that is part metaphor, part memoir, part metaphysical labyrinth. It’s filled with episodic Bulgarian vignettes, contemplations on the meaning of alienation and memory, and cautious optimism about the collective conscience and the power of imagining the world anew.

Physics is gently human and not showy, masterful in its simplicity yet laugh-out-loud funny. Consider the author recalling attending a writer’s open-casket funeral:

“While alive, he had hay fever. Now he was lying there, piled with flowers, looking as if he would start sneezing any minute. An orchid was sticking its tip right up his nose. But clearly he was already cured.”

The image of the handful of unofficial mistresses (there is an official one, too) also in attendance and in the corner, with their ice-blue hair, is perhaps familiar to anyone who grew up in 1980s Bulgaria. But the humor, the absurdity of the scene, is universal despite the specificity of the locale.

The novel’s translation, for which Angela Rodel was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, renders Gospodinov’s poetic writing faithfully and elegantly into English, and, like the work from which it is interpreted, it is injected with gentle optimism. At one point, the author recalls hearing a story from a friend, Miriam, who, for a time, lives with a Buddhist. The Buddhist attempts to instill in her the notion that life is sacred and not to be disrupted. In this case, it means she cannot lay a finger on an ever-increasing swarm of cockroaches that invades their apartment. In Bulgarian, Gospodinov writes that Miriam accepts this roachy existence for an entire year because she is in love and she is, therefore, turpeliva, the direct translation of the word being “patient” or “uncomplaining” or “enduring.” But Rodel takes it a step further and goes for “magnanimous.” Humor is again a crucial component at the end of the episode: after the magnanimity wears off, Miriam grabs the roach spray, and to the devastation of the Buddhist—curiously, out to work at that precise moment—commits “genocide.” But the Buddhist too falls off his sanctimonious horse: he’s already taken another lover.

If stories like the cockroach saga revel in a sort of geographic haziness, the melancholy of socialist reality making frequent, subtly heartbreaking stops puts the geography immediately into focus. There are the images of the englassed balconies turned into kitchens that adorn every apartment building—that attempt to squeeze the most out of your allotted square footage; the starving years, when instead of eating, Gospodinov and his girlfriend read a cook book; the electricity regime in the ’90s (think two hours on, two hours off); the stretches without hot water (an old Bulgarian joke has Electricity and Water running into each other at the entrance of an apartment building. “After you,” says Electricity, “I’m only here for an hour.” “No, after you, I insist,” says Water, “I’m only going to the first floor.”).

For those coming of age in newly democratic Bulgaria, the promise of something better, something new often came and went. Writes Gospodinov, “Back in the day, everybody was always saying: it’s too late for us, but lets hope the kids will live a different life. The mantra of late socialism. I now realize that it was my turn to utter the same line.”

But the book does not suffer from a martyr complex. Its multi-generational appeal exists precisely because it can make fun of itself without fatal insult.

Says Hristo Karastoyanov, a fellow writer also from the city of Yambol (and whose book, The Same Night Awaits Us All: Diary of a Novel, I’m currently translating): “Last summer in Bulgaria, the president did a one-day, country-wide public reading initiative. I was asked to help organize the Yambol event in the square, and the whole day had an air of contrivance, except for one thing: A girl, no more than 14 years old, got up to read a page from her favorite book. And it was a page from The Physics of Sorrow.” No one told her to read that, she had chosen it, and to me, it said a lot.”

With the English translation of “Physics entering the world, Gospodinov is now in the position of being able to push Bulgarian literature if not to the forefront, then at least meaningfully forward. His appeal is genuine, infectiously transcending boundaries both physical and figurative.

29 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

This post is courtesy of BTBA judge, Scott Esposito. Scott Esposito blogs at Conversational Reading and you can find his tweets here.



La Grande – Juan Jose Saer, translated by from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, Argentina,
Open Letter Books

Juan Jose Saer was a towering figure in Argentine literature. Over the course of his decades-long career he carved out his very own Argentina, a lovely provincial city named Santa Fe and its environs. He also developed his very own literary style, something that deals with the trappings of genre and that leads to very engaging plots and stories—plus unforgettable characters—yet that is also highly, highly philosophical and experimental, in the way of other Argentine greats like Julio Cortázar and Ricardo Piglia.

As with the work of William Faulker and Roberto Bolaño, you can think of Saer’s fiction as all of a piece. There are things that link most of Saer’s great novels—places, people, themes—and La Grande is very much the summation of a career. It is the biggest, longest, most complex novel he produced, and it brings many of his principle characters all back together. It was the last thing Saer ever wrote, a book he didn’t quite finish before he died at a young 67 from lung cancer in 2005, but that feels very complete in the state it reaches us.

This introduction may make it sound like you need to be versed in Saer to approach La Grande, but this is not the case. The book is self-contained and utterly satisfying and complete on its own terms. What is it about? Well, it is about the good life, the very material pleasures and joys that we must remember to always make time for on this Earth. It is also a deeply philosophical work about who we are and what we are doing here, although Saer is never jargon-y or butchering or even so much as dull when he gets into philosophy. It’s also about the literary avant-garde, about seductions and affairs between men and women, about marriage and getting a second chance at life and love.

In other words, it’s a novel written by a master novelist who has lived a very rich life and is prepared to put it all down on paper one last time. Thanks to Open Letter we will continue to receive many more installments of Saer for years to come, so there will be many, many more chances for him to win the Best Translated Book Award, but La Grande should really be the one that gives him the honor. It’s just a simply great book, something that will live with you for a week or two as you read it, and then a thing that you will then recall fondly forever after you’ve finished it. It makes you feel more alive to read it, and it makes you want to enjoy life, whether you do that by consuming a fine wine, chorizo, and carnal pleasures (as do Saer’s characters) or whether you prefer other of the world’s delights. Once you’ve had your fill of earthly pleasures, La Grande then instructs you in how to contemplate it all, to give your life that spiritual, philosophical outlook it also needs to have. It also happens to have one of literature’s great last lines (it may be a good thing that Saer never got to complete this work), and it really does feel like a book that gives us our best shot at understanding just what life is and how we should live it.

So, really, there are many worthy books on the BTBA longlist, and this year it feels like there are many more titles in the running than usual, but La Grande really deserves it. It should win.

9 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.


Street of Thieves – Mathias Énard, Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter Books

Last year, I advanced Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God, tr. from the French by Lulu Norman, for The Best Translated Book Award a book that follows the lives of a group of teenage soccer players from Sidi Moumen who become Islamist martyrs, suicide bombers in the 2003 Casablanca attacks.

This year I’m championing Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, in which one of the main characters becomes involved with an Islamist group turned Jihadist.

I hope that I’m not developing a pattern – not the French translation part, the radicalism part.

Street of Thieves is a coming-of-age story of two childhood friends set mostly in Tangiers during the Arab Spring. Lakhdar, the narrator, wants freedom – to travel, smoke weed, earn money, read French noir detective novels, have sex with Spanish women. His friend, Bassam, introduces Lakhdar to the “Group for the Propagation for Islamic Thought” for whom he becomes their seller of books and pamphlets.

After the organization severely beats a neighborhood bookseller, their paths split, Lakhdar moves away, Bassam gets deeply into the group. Bassam might be involved in a stabbing in Tangiers, a bombing in Marrakesh, and ultimately an assassination.

“Men are dogs,” says Lakhdar, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…” Exiled from his family because of an indiscretion with his cousin, Lakhdar starts with nothing, lives on the street, takes a series of jobs, goes on the run, falls in love, and ends up in a Barcelona neighborhood of junkies and prostitutes, the Street of Thieves.

Lots of big words – fate, fear, corruption, revolution, liberty, love and loyalty and tragedy, but no theme bigger than identity. Is Lakhdar more than his religion? More than his nationality? In the final pages of the book, he testifies “I am not a Moroccan, I am not a Frenchman, I’m not a Spaniard, I’m more than that . . . I am not a Muslim, I am more than that.”

Love of language, the study of language, the beauty of language are all manifested in the book. Love of books – “which is the only place on earth where life is good” – certainly won this judge over.

Street of Thieves should win The Best Translated Book Award because Énard has filtered multiple complex social issues through the eyes of a wonderfully likable narrator. If I’ve made that sound dreadfully serious, it’s my mistake.

9 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

For those of you who haven’t yet seen the Facebook posts and re-posts, we are thrilled (and grateful) that Open Letter has once again received an Arts Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The grant awarded to the press for 2015 was one of the largest awarded this year.

From the press release published by the University of Rochester:

“The $60,000 grant will support the publication and promotion of several books in 2015, including Rochester Knockings, a novel based on the Rochester-based religious movement of Spiritualism and the famous Fox Sisters.

‘We’re extremely grateful to the NEA for this generous award,’ said Open Letter Publisher Chad W. Post. ‘To be awarded the third largest grant in the literature category is one of the highest honors a nonprofit publisher can receive. But even more importantly is that this award allows us to introduce English readers to six amazing new books.’

The press was one of 55 organizations to receive a grant in this year’s literature category. In 2014, the NEA received more than 1,400 applications for Arts Works grants, requesting more than $75 million in funding.

. . .

In addition to supporting the publication of Rochester Knockings (translated by Jennifer Grotz, associate professor of English at Rochester), the grant will support the publication of five additional books: Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (translated by J.T. Mahany ’13); Traces of Time; Rock, Paper, Scissors; So Much, So Much War; and Loquela (translated by Will Vanderhyden ’13).”

For the full release and more information, go here.

For more information on the NEA and its work, go here.

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 |

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 |

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 |

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 |

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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